Purdue’s pre-conference slate is one of the most challenging in the country. In Full Court Press, analyst Harold Stier calculated each Top 35 team’s strength of schedule by using a combination of game locations and opponents’ RPI ratings. Purdue tied with the University of California Santa Barbara and Texas Christian University for the honor of having the third-toughest schedule. Interestingly, the Boilers will play UCSB next month, and may meet TCU on November 29. Boston College, a definite December opponent, came in sixth. Tennessee and Old Dominion were ranked first and second, respectively. Harold pointed out that nine of the Boilers’ 12 non-conference games feature rivals who placed among the top 100 in last season’s final RPI rankings, and that six of those contests feature top-50 opponents. Purdue is one of the six top-35 programs scheduled to meet no school whose RPI number exceeded 200 (although that would not be true had Savannah State, which takes on the Boilers in Thanksgiving Day’s opening round of the WBCA/Basketball Travelers Classic, been a full-fledged Division I member for 2001-02).
At Wisconsin-Milwaukee (Nov. 22)
Last season, the Panthers finished in second place in the Horizon League with a 14-2 record, and posted a 20-8 overall mark. They may find it difficult to do as well in 2002-03, as they have lost five players since March. Coach Sandy Botham does bring back conference Player of the Year Maria Viall, however, and is projected to again contend for the Horizon crown. In drumming up interest for the game, it has been pointed out that Purdue will be the “biggest name” the Panthers will see this year, and a concerted effort is thus being made to give the hosts every advantage by packing the gym. UWM may put forth a valiant effort, but expect the Boilers to finish the evening with a 1-0 start to their 2002-03 journey.
UNIVERSITY OF THE PACIFIC (Nov. 24)
The first of two Big West opponents to face the Boilers before Christmas, the Tigers finished tied for second place in their conference behind perennial powerhouse UCSB. As if Pacific’s loss of its starting point guard and adjustment to new coach Craig Jackson won’t be enough to do the team in, the California-based Tigers will host Northern Arizona less than 48 hours before taking the court at Mackey. Chalk up another win for the “Vegas Gold and Black”.
SAVANNAH STATE (Nov. 28)
The Purdue athletic department has taken pains to point out that Savannah State was scheduled by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association, organizer of the Basketball Travelers Classic, not by the host school. Perhaps the administrators didn’t want to be accused of scheduling a cream puff for such a high-profile tournament. Since the Lady Tigers only managed a 4-24 record last season, the Boilers should have an easy time with them.
TCU/HOLY CROSS (Nov. 29)
Depending on the results of Thursday’s games, the Boilers’ second-round Classic opponents will be either the Fort Worth-based Horned Frogs or the Crusaders of Worcester, Massachusetts. Chances are that Purdue will face TCU, whose team has made marked improvements over the past few years. The Horned Frogs won Conference USA’s 2001-02 regular-season title, then matched Purdue by making it to the second round of the NCAA’s. TCU is led by one of the better sophomores in the country in Sandora Irvin, whose 6’4” height may present some match-up problems for the Boilers.
Holy Cross, a member of the Patriot League, amassed a 23-8 overall record in a season topped off by a WNIT appearance. The Crusaders return 8 letterwinners, but even this should hardly allow “the Cross” to keep up with TCU, let alone Purdue. The Boilers might have struggled against the Horned Frogs, or even the Crusaders, on a neutral court. In the “friendly confines”, however, Purdue should prevail.
@ Southern Mississippi (Dec. 1)
So many of the Boilers’ opponents are from C-USA that an observer could get the impression that coach Kristy Curry wants Purdue to switch its league affiliation. This is the second year of a home-and-home series against the Golden Eagles. Last season, Purdue was responsible for one of the 17 losses suffered by Southern Miss against only 11 wins. Next month, the most difficult challenge the Boilers will face may be finding their way in and out of Hattiesburg.
Vanderbilt (Dec. 7) in Tempe, Arizona
(Hoops for the Cure Classic II)
Although the Commodores lost long-time coach Jim Foster to the Big 10 and star Zuzi Klimesova to the Indiana Fever, Vandy brings back plenty of firepower. Melanie Balcomb, who earned her coaching stripes by bringing Xavier onto the national scene, begins her tenure in Nashville this year. The ‘Dores feature Chantelle Anderson, a 6’6” center forecast by many to be the first pick in next May’s WNBA draft. Point guard Ashley McElhiney isn’t the most athletically gifted player out there, but she doesn’t make many mistakes, and gets the ball to the right person at the right time. As a member of the loaded Southeastern Conference, Vandy is used to being in the national spotlight and playing in tough contests. The Boilers will need to bring their A game if they hope to pull this one out.
Indiana University (Dec. 14) in Indianapolis
(Duel in the Dome)
By an odd quirk of fate, both the Purdue men’s and women’s teams are only scheduled to meet Indiana once in Big 10 play. This fact opened the door to an opportunity to make lots of money. The powers that be anticipated that an IU/Purdue doubleheader would sell out the state capital’s RCA Dome, so the Boilermaker Blockbuster was scrapped in favor of the Duel in the Dome. Both games could well be blowouts. And if you’re a Purdue fan, the blowout in the sense of “party” as well as “rout” will most likely be seen when the Lady, not Gentleman, Boilermakers take the court. Since Kathi Bennett has taken over in Bloomington, IU has increased its recruiting presence in the state, and has 6 freshmen (many of whom are locals) joining the squad this fall. No member of the class of 2006, however, appears to have the abilities of Jill Chapman, who anchored the Hoosiers at center for 4 years before joining the Detroit Shock. Expect “that team down south” to struggle for the next few seasons.
@ UC Santa Barbara (Dec. 17)
To complete a home-and-home commitment (although last season’s “home” game against UCSB was the Boilermaker Blockbuster in Conseco Fieldhouse), the Boilers travel to Santa Barbara to take on the Gauchos. UCSB has dominated the Big West for several years, and 2001-02 was no exception as coach Mark French guided his charges to a 16-0 league mark en route to a 26-6 overall record. In order to get the team ready for NCAA play, French regularly schedules a difficult pre-conference slate. In addition to Purdue, UCSB will play North Carolina State, Michigan, Florida, Southern Cal, and Colorado State. Like the Boilers, the Gauchos are perimeter-oriented -- although they do bring back 6’8” Lindsay Taylor. An additional worry for Curry’s troops is that they will be competing in the Thunderdome, a notoriously difficult venue for visiting teams. A solid, balanced effort, however, should allow Purdue to escape with a W.
BOSTON COLLEGE (Dec. 21)
After a one-year break, BC completes its home-and-home obligation as the Eagles visit West Lafayette. It’s extremely difficult to gauge how good a squad coach Cathy Inglese will have this season, as the program has been decimated by injuries in the recent past. If fifth-year seniors Brianne Stepherson, Becky Gottstein, and Kim Mackie stay healthy, their team will be extremely competitive. Gottstein, in particular, is an extremely effective scorer and rebounder who should give the Boiler frontcourt fits. Purdue will have the edge on the perimeter, however, and should be able to guard Mackie successfully in Mackey. The Eagles do at least look to provide the Boilers’ toughest home opposition during the pre-conference portion of the schedule.
WESTERN MICHIGAN (Dec. 29)
After Christmas, Purdue gets to ease back into Division I competition by hosting the Broncos of the Mid-American Conference. WMU finished just above 500 overall last season with a 16-15 record, which included an 11-5 MAC mark good enough for third place in the Western Division of the league. The Broncos are a young team on their way up, but right now coach Ron Stewart literally doesn’t have the “horses” to run with Purdue.
TULANE (Jan. 2)
Another home-and-home obligation fulfilled. And another C-USA team on the docket. Coach Lisa Stockton always seems to field competitive teams that play well when the stakes are high. After posting a lackluster 8-6 conference record, the Green Wave received an automatic NCAA bid by winning the league tournament, and hung around through two rounds of the “Big Dance”. The New Orleans-based program brings back 13 letterwinners, among them center Teana McKiver, who averaged 16.4 points per game. A good warm-up for the Boilers’ trek north to play….
@ Notre Dame (Jan. 4)
The Purdue/Notre Dame rivalry is fast becoming one of the premier inter-conference attractions in college basketball. Since Curry’s arrival in West Lafayette, the Boilers and Fighting Irish have split the four most recent clashes of their series. In last December’s game at Mackey, an extremely young Notre Dame squad lost by a 70-57 count. Now Muffet McGraw’s team is a year older, and gets to host the Boilers. The Irish feature one of the best pure shooters in the country in Alicia Ratay. She is joined by an extremely talented frontcourt, which features 2001-02 Big East Rookie of the Year Jackie Batteast. To top it off, McGraw is an excellent coach who can get the most out of her charges. Point guard play may be the only thing separating Notre Dame from a league title and another Final Four appearance. The Boilers may get all they can handle at the Joyce Center.
Big 10 Season
The conference portion of the schedule provides a good news-bad news story for Purdue. The bad news is that for the fourth straight season, the Boilers will begin league play on the road. The good news is that after the first six games, things should get considerably easier until the Big 10 tournament begins.
@ Michigan State (Jan. 6)
Hired before the 2000-01 season, coach Joanne P. McCallie began to see the fruits of her efforts halfway through her second campaign at the Spartans’ helm. Although MSU had earlier come out of nowhere to cream Georgia on national television, the squad didn’t truly gel until reaching the homestretch of its schedule. By that time an NCAA bid was out of reach, but the Spartans did go on to reach the semifinals of the postseason WNIT. Since arriving in East Lansing, McCallie has seen her team play excellent defense, but have trouble putting the ball through the hoop. Yet leading scorer Syreeta Bromfield (15.6 ppg) returns, and her young teammates are all older and wiser. On paper, the Boilers are the better team; the Purdue faithful can only hope the result at the Breslin Center will reflect this.
@ Wisconsin (Jan. 9)
After years of underachieving, including a particularly dramatic swoon halfway through last season, Badgers head coach Jane Albright finds herself in a very precarious position. Her contract was not extended, so presumably she will remain if she can somehow dazzle her boss in 2002-03 and be let go if she does not. Albright brought in longtime Tennessee assistant Al Brown to help her, but there isn’t much for the staff to work with up in Madison this year. Sophomore Ebba Gebisa (West Lafayette High) looks to be one of Badgerland’s very few bright lights in what may be a long, dark winter for the Red and White. Even playing a second straight road contest, the Boilers have too much of everything to expect anything less than a convincing win.
MICHIGAN (Jan. 12)
Senior LeeAnn Bies was selected as a first-team All-Big 10 player before the start of this season despite her up and down junior year. Perhaps the voters know something, or maybe they just remember her form from earlier days. Michigan’s frontcourt is as good as any in the league, as Bies is joined by Jennifer Smith and Raina Goodlow, who returns after losing most of the 2001-02 campaign to injury. The Wolverines have very little in the backcourt, and their lack of a perimeter game will make it extremely difficult for them to contend in conference play.
PENN STATE (Jan. 16)
The Lady Lions were selected by the coaches to win the Big 10 crown this season. No doubt the voters were thinking not only of Kelly Mazzante, the defending Division I scoring champion, but of point guard Jess Strom and the extremely quick Tanisha Wright as well. Despite this wealth of riches in the backcourt, one wonders who will be under the basket. Rene Portland kicked post player Courtney Upshaw off the team at the beginning of the year, leaving Penn State with only three players who could be described as posts. Despite this apparent imbalance, the Lady Lions defeated Mississippi State in the pre-season WNIT by shutting down the Bulldogs’ Kodak All-American power forward, LaToya Thomas. So perhaps this lack of inside depth will be less of an issue than many imagine. Mazzante is more of a scorer than a shooter – she takes an incredibly high percentage of the team’s total shots on the way to her gaudy numbers. Count on Shereka Wright to limit Mazzante’s open looks (thus producing an even more dismal field-goal percentage for Kelly than usual: just because she isn’t open doesn’t mean she won’t attempt the shot), and look for the Boilers’ athletic posts to seal the victory.
@ Minnesota (Jan. 19)
Although it is very possible that the Golden Gophers will go through their pre-conference slate without a loss, this has more to do with their extremely weak schedule than with anything else. Minnesota plays only one non-league game against an opponent whose RPI is among the top 100, and that rival is nowhere to be found among the elite 50. As Ohio State and Indiana University have demonstrated in the recent past, this strategy is usually an extremely poor way to prepare for the rigors of Big 10 play. However, if any team can rise above this steady diet of cupcakes and prevail, it’s the Golden Gophers.
Minnesota of 2002-03 is very similar to Purdue of 1997-98. As were the members of that Boiler team, the Gophers are on their third coach in as many seasons. In both cases, the players became very tough by necessity, and ended up playing for each other more than for any higher authority. Pam Borton was named to head the program last summer after Brenda Oldfield (now Frese) bolted for the greener pastures of Maryland. Borton has already demonstrated that she is a good recruiter (or at least that she hasn’t gotten in the way of Lindsay Whalen’s recruiting efforts,) and has begun to sign the top in-state talent. The current crop of newcomers will join defending Big 10 Player of the Year Whalen and league Freshman of the Year Janel McCarville on what might be the team most likely to stand in the way of Purdue’s bid for a conference three-peat.
IOWA (Jan. 23)
This season’s Hawkeyes may look very different from the first two editions of the team under coach Lisa Bluder. Iowa has recently specialized in a triangle offense, but a key component is now missing. The sharp-shooting guards are gone, and Bluder’s current freshman class is strongest down low. In the past, the team scored out of the triangle offense when the posts could get the ball to open three-point shooters. If Iowa’s perimeter players can’t convert their attempts, then opponents won’t need to play the guards and wing forwards tightly, and will be able to deny high-percentage shots by camping out in the lanes the cutters are trying to fill. A team on the rise, the Hawkeyes may lack the experience to steal a win away from the Boilers in Mackey this year.
@ Northwestern (Jan. 26)
The Wildcats continue to make progress by improving their talent and overall level of play. Unfortunately for them, they have so far to go in order to be competitive in the Big 10 that this improvement may not result in many more wins in conference play. League All-Freshman Team post Sarah Kwasinski gives head coach June Olkowski someone to build around, but even up in Evanston, the Boilers should beat the ‘Cats rather easily.
@ Illinois (Jan. 30)
The Fighting Illini are in trouble, and everyone except the residents of Champaign seems to know it. Since head coach Theresa Grentz arrived, forty percent of Illinois’s freshman players have failed to stick around for four years. This season has started no differently – highly touted recruit Kari Embree decided not to play for the team, starting point guard Shavonna Hunter was removed from the team for disciplinary reasons, and leading returning scorer Iveta Marcauskaite elected to play professionally in her native Europe. Despite this latest round of business as usual, Grentz continues to be lauded as a Hall-of-Fame caliber coaching genius amid the constant turmoil that surrounds her program. Her Big 10 colleagues seem happy to join the chorus praising Grentz, even as their charges regularly crush the perpetually young and inexperienced Illini on the court. The current edition of the team should be no match for the Boilers.
OHIO STATE (Feb. 2)
The center of attention at Ohio State is new head coach Jim Foster, who left SEC power Vanderbilt to assume the reins of the Buckeyes. He is expected to turn around a once-proud program that has hit some tough times of late. The fans may not see much change right away, but when his recruits show up next season and his transfers are allowed to play, OSU may once again be leading the Big 10. On Groundhog Day 2003, however, the Boilers should have little difficulty handling the Buckeyes in Mackey.
NORTHWESTERN (Feb. 6)
@ Penn State (Feb. 13)
ILLINOIS (Feb. 16)
MICHIGAN STATE (Feb. 20)
@ Ohio State (Feb. 23)
INDIANA (Feb. 27)
This game will constitute the official Big 10 meeting between the Hoosiers and the Boilers. The outcome should mirror that of the pre-conference match-up. Expect Purdue to cruise to an easy victory on what will be – incredible as it seems – Senior Night for venerable center Mary Jo Noon.
@ Iowa (March 2)
If this game is to determine the Big 10 regular-season championship, Purdue might be in big trouble. For some reason, the Boilers seem to lose their ability to play defense when they make the trek to the Hawkeye State. In each of the past two campaigns, Purdue has not only lost in Iowa City, but has done so in spectacular fashion by giving up over 80 points in both 2001 and 2002. Perhaps the third time will be the charm.