One of the most venerated of all sports clichés declares that "the only poll that matters is the one taken at the end of the year”. Right up there with this statement is the corollary assertion that "pre-season polls are worthless". As is the case with most such chestnuts, the reason these axioms have become clichés is that they are (at least partially) true. For the most part, pre-season rankings reflect voter bias as much as they represent clear-eyed evaluation of all eligible competitors. The established teams tend to remain at the top of polls because they are, well, established teams. An up-and-coming club tends to be ranked only if there is enough buzz surrounding the program to keep it fresh in the voters’ minds. One example is Texas Christian University, whose Horned Frogs won the 2001-02 Conference USA regular-season title and feature Sandora Irvin, a highly-regarded player who "could have gone anywhere”. TCU was thus included in most early polls while such arguably more deserving candidates as Villanova and BYU were passed over. The Horned Frogs were deemed the 21st- best team in the country as they entered Mackey Arena to take on the Purdue Boilermakers for the championship of the WBCA/Basketball Travelers Classic. If the level of play TCU exhibited Friday evening is any indication, however, coach Jeff Mittie’s squad is unlikely to be mentioned when the proverbial “only poll that matters” is finally released.
As the game started, it was obvious that TCU had been watching tapes of the home team. The Frogs immediately went into a zone defense, and generally stuck with that strategy throughout the contest. In contrast to Purdue’s performance in earlier games, however, the Boilers had no trouble reversing the ball against the zone, nor in finding Mary Jo Noon down low when she'd cut to the baseline. As a result, the Boilers cut up the Horned Frogs’ defense as if it were a Thanksgiving turkey in jumping out to an early lead. The score was 12-2 before the visitors from Fort Worth began hitting some shots of their own and making a game of it. Midway through the first half, the Boilers hit a rocky stretch as they committed several turnovers, and failed to connect when they did manage to shoot the ball. The Frogs had pulled back within three points when Sharika Webb nailed a trey to end the scoring drought. With the “make”, the Old Gold and Black relaxed again, began playing well, and widened the margin. At halftime, Purdue went into the locker room up 14 points (47-33).
The adjustment the Horned Frogs appeared to make between halves was to become much more physical, and the amount of contact -- both incidental and not so incidental -- increased markedly. This strategy backfired, as it merely allowed Purdue to get to the line more regularly as the game progressed. The difference on the scoreboard never got close to single digits as the Boilers cruised to their fourth easy win of the season. The final score was 93 to 74.
As soon as the game ended, it was announced that Mary Jo Noon and Erika Valek were named to the all-WBCA/Basketball Travelers Classic team, and that Shereka Wright was elected the Most Valuable Player of the tournament.
Comments on Specific Aspects of the Game:
The Boilers’ shooting was white-hot at the start as they knocked down 59% of their first-half attempts from the field. Purdue cooled down somewhat in the second stanza to finish at a 55% clip for the day, including a 50% success rate from behind the arc. The high efficiency was, in part, attributable to the numerous layup opportunities Kristy Curry’s charges were able to manufacture.
The Boilers primarily opted to employ a man-to-man, but occasionally switched to zone, and even threw in the occasional full-court press when things got close. For the game, the Horned Frogs hit 42% of their field-goal attempts, but only 22% of their shots from behind the three-point line. TCU committed 14 turnovers, 8 of which were credited as Purdue steals. Shereka Wright led the home team with three thefts.
For the fourth time in the four-game season, Purdue handily won the battle of the boards. The Boilers’ 38-28 advantage on the glass was chiefly attributable to Mary Jo Noon, who dominated on the low block and grabbed a contest-high nine caroms.
Although the rivals’ percentages were similar, the imbalance in this category was truly remarkable. While the Boilers connected on 29 of 42 attempts (69%), TCU only managed 16 makes in 23 attempts. This disparity did not appear to be evidence of "home cooking" by the officials: rather, the discrepancy reflected the Frogs’ comparatively physical style of play. Lindsey Hicks, Sharika Webb, and Emily Heikes were all perfect from the line.
The Boilers recorded 20 assists to 19 turnovers. As does the field-goal percentage, the high number of assists reflects the team's ability to set up bunny shots for the post players. The guards had a more difficult time holding onto the ball than is typical; the speedy TCU backcourt players were adept at stealing it if the Purdue dribbler failed to pay attention. Several of the hosts’ turnovers resulted from over-throwing the breaking player in transition. When this happened, the coaches were noticeably encouraging. No doubt, Curry and her assistants know that these sorts of turnovers are inevitable when a team makes a habit of pushing the ball up the court, and the staff is willing to pay the price in order to instill an up-tempo, fast-breaking style.
In the first three games of the season, Mary Jo Noon appeared out of sorts and had difficulty contributing consistently. On Friday, however, Mary Jo hit just about every shot she put up, canning both under-the-basket bunnies and longer-range jumpers. She regained her aggressive ability to go after rebounds, and played excellent post defense. The best part of Mary Jo's game was her ability to get the guards to hit the seams in the zone defense and feed her for “gimme” deuces. In 24 minutes of action, Mary Jo recorded a game-high 23 points (8-of-10 field-goal attempts, 7-of-10 free-throw opportunities) and a game-best 9 rebounds. The only other noteworthy box-score category in which she added to her lifetime total was turnovers (4).
Erika Valek has yet to totally master the art of pressuring the ball and going for steals without committing fouls. Her aggressiveness thus resulted in her being charged with four personals over the course of the game. Erika atoned for her sins by getting the ball up the court in a hurry, often setting up the offense before the defense had time to catch its collective breath and get into position. Tim Newton, the Boilers’ radio play-by-play announcer, mentioned that in his 13 plus years of calling games he has not seen another Purdue player who could claim to be Erika's equal at being able to stop and pop a mid-range jumper. Valek can stop on a dime, and she just doesn't miss. In a very solid outing, Erika netted 19 points (7-of-9 FG, 2-of-2 treys, 3-of-4 FT), 4 rebounds, 6 assists, and 2 steals to 2 turnovers.
Shereka Wright had one of those quiet evenings on which she fills up every section of the box score without appearing to take over the game. One reason Shereka doesn't immediately strike you as a dominant player is that she does everything so effortlessly that whatever she tries appears much easier than it is. Wright remains the team's unquestioned go-to player. When the shot clock is winding down or the Boilers need a score, the ball goes into Shereka's hands, and she does her best to create something out of nothing. She usually succeeds. When the final buzzer went off, Shereka had accumulated 18 points (4-of-9 FG, 10-of-17 FT), 6 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 blocked shot, and 3 steals to 3 turnovers.
Lindsey Hicks’s improvement from her sophomore year appears to be permanent. Hicks had an outstanding game, and was able to mount a consistent effort on both ends of the court. For much of the night, she guarded Sandora Irvin, and helped hold the heralded sophomore to 14 points. When on offense, Lindsey was able to connect on a decent percentage of her shots, many of which were taken in traffic. Lindsey's ability to deliver the high-low pass from the top of the key remains one of her strongest attributes. In 29 minutes, Hicks scored 12 points (4-of-9 FG, 0-of-1 from three-point range, 4-of-4 FT). She added 4 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 steals.
Beth Jones had more trouble holding onto the ball than she typically does, but otherwise played a very heady game. Although her shot selection appeared to be fine, her attempts just weren't dropping for her. Beth finished the night with 6 points (2-of-8 FG, 2-of-7 treys), 3 rebounds, 5 assists, and a steal to 5 turnovers.
Emily Heikes did not appear to be as affected by her facemask as she had been in the Savannah State game, and was extremely aggressive under the boards. In 9 minutes of play, she notched 3 points (1-of-3 FG, 1-of-1 FT) and 3 rebounds.
Sharika Webb got an initiation as she competed for the first time as a collegian against women whose athletic talents were similar to hers. Webb got her pocket picked early as she was looking over to Curry for instructions, and made several other "freshman" errors. Sharika did not appear intimidated, however, and was ready to mix it up with TCU once things got physical. In 18 minutes’ play, she recorded 7 points (1-of-3 FG, 1-of-1 trey, 4-of-4 FT), 2 rebounds, and an assist to 3 turnovers.
Like Sharika, Carol Duncan struggled a bit in going up against players with equivalent athletic talent. Duncan got burned by the more experienced TCU posts, who were able to draw quick fouls on the back-up freshman center. Although Carol's 4 personals limited her playing time, her
enthusiasm and fight never flagged. In her 14 minutes of competition, Duncan accumulated 2 points (1-of-1 FG), a rebound, and an assist.
Sabrina Keys and Missy Taylor were on the court for 4 and 7 minutes, respectively. Each thus had enough time for a taste of what playing against a competitive Division I opponent can be like. The experience was a shock to both, as they looked somewhat intimidated. Missy did knock down her only attempt, an open outside shot, for three points. Sabrina failed to score (0-of-2 FT), but managed to pull down a rebound while committing two turnovers.
Ashley Mays and Brianna Howard did not play.
The substitution pattern employed against TCU will probably be repeated throughout the season. The four reserves who look to be firmly entrenched in the rotation can each expect to see at least ten minutes a game. Carol will spell Mary Jo; Emily, Lindsey; Missy, “Shereka Senior”; and “Sharika Junior”, Beth or Erika. Sabrina has appeared in most games as well, and Ashley is being used when an athletic defensive presence is required.
Curry has frequently said that she wants to give her substitutes some more on-court experience while resting her starters. At the same time, she has never used players who don't seem ready to handle the minutes, even when the game has long since been decided. One hopes that Beth and Lindsey are sharing their freshman DNP experiences with Brianna, Ashley, and Sabrina.
The Boilers were extremely well prepared for Irvin and the rest of the Horned Frogs. It was obvious that Purdue had worked on scoring against zone defenses, and the coaching staff should get credit for a job well done in that regard.
It was déjà vu in Mackey all over again -- the visitors were called for 12 more fouls than were the hosts, yet the crowd was all over the officials. The average basketball fan believes that a foul should be called whenever a player is pushed to the ground, tackled, or otherwise attacked. Many
referees and umpires don't see it that way, however, and Friday’s no-calls in the face of physical TCU play were behind most of the audience displeasure.
The announced attendance was 4004, a decent figure for a vacation weekend. In the "you don't really miss something until it's gone" department, the band was back after a game's absence. A huge increase in energy and enthusiasm accompanied the addition of music. The band has adopted a habit of singing various ditties to opposing players who are attempting free throws.
Currently, the Barney Song appears to be most successful at making invaders miss their shots.
Within two days of dispatching the Horned Frogs, the Boilers traveled to Hattiesburg to take on Southern Mississippi. Despite not being ranked, the Golden Eagles provided much stiffer competition than had the Horned Frogs. Purdue was able to grind out a 65-53 win to go to 5-0 on the season. Although this start is the best for a Purdue team since the 1992-93 campaign, the record reflects the level of competition to date as much as it does the Boilers' excellence. The Old Gold and Black next travels to Tempe to take on eighth-ranked Vanderbilt in Saturday’s Hoops for the Cure Classic II, and will not play again in Mackey until December 21. The Commodores present the first really stern test of the 2002-03 season, and a neutral-court triumph over such a highly touted opponent would provide an enormous boost for the young Boiler squad.
Game Ball: Mary Jo Noon