Purdue Women’s Basketball Season Preview - 2003-2004
Purdue Head women's basketball coach Kristy Curry made a promotional appearance at the local Krispy Kreme outlet this past Halloween. No doubt the Purdue athletic department and the Krispy Kreme executives saw this as a natural tie-in because, just like the products sold by the popular doughnut chain, the 2003-2004 Boilermakers have no center. Just kidding - although the above statement reflects much of what has been written about the Boilermakers this year. Women's basketball pundit Clay Kallam neatly summarized what the outside world thinks of the Boilers when he wrote:
"Mary Jo Noon wasn't the best center in the nation, or even the Big 10, but she was 6-5 and was at least a defensive presence. She's gone, and with her goes any semblance of a Boilermaker inside game. The rest of the team is back, and against teams without a center, should have no problem. But sooner or later ..."
It is extremely ironic that in a season when the Purdue Women's Basketball Team has so very much, the off-season focus has been on the one thing they don't possess. "If only Purdue had a 6'6" pine-riding project on its roster" fret the press and fans, "then everything would be fine." The coaches and team have let it be known that they are getting more than a little tired of hearing about their perceived center drought. They are quick to point out that while the team has no player over 6'2", they have more players over 6'0" than the majority of their opponents. And all those 6 footers are ready to contribute and are better players than the vast majority of the taller kids in the country. This year's edition of the Boilermakers is, in a word, loaded. The team expects no less than a Final Four appearance. It says here that Curry and her charges are right and the "experts" of the world are wrong. Given the talent, experience, and depth of the Boilers this year, ending the season in New Orleans is a realistic goal.
Even though she arrived in West Lafayette in 1999, this will be the first year that the Boilermakers are truly Kristy Curry's team. Not only has every player on the court been recruited by Curry, but she has also selected every member of her staff. After years of making game plans fit short benches and a spectrum of player strengths, Curry finally has the horses who can play the style of basketball she prefers. 2003-2004 will be the first year for everyone to see what Curry has had in mind all along.
Curry has established herself as one of the best coaches in the country, getting to 100 wins in only 126 attempts with a 107-27 career mark. Those statistics are listed in every Purdue pre-game press release. But everything you need to know about Curry as a person can only be found in the press guide of the WNBA Connecticut Sun. It is there that Katie Douglas reveals that she credits Kristy with her development off the court because "Curry taught her how to have balance in her life and to get through the hard times."
The coaching corps is rounded out by Kelly Curry, now second in command on the basis of seniority if nothing else, and newcomers Jannon Roland and Katrina Merriweather. Kelly is the stealth coach, only mentioned in relation to his wife. He has coached the post players to 5 winning seasons, and if this year's “inside-game-free” team does as well as the Boiler faithful hope, he may finally get some recognition in his own right. Roland and Merriweather bring youth, Purdue ties, and collegiate playing experience to the Purdue bench. And, oh yeah, they bring a healthy measure of diversity as well. Both assistants bring so much to the table that race could well be a happy coincidence. In times of cut throat recruiting, however, having a staff that "looks like America" is a necessity. It is nice to see that Purdue is not just talking the talk but also walking the walk in the area of minority advancement.
Senior Lindsey Hicks is the elder stateswoman in the frontline. She will chair the "forward by committee" and bring some experience and savvy to the power forward position. If her exhibition season performance is any guide, she is at her strongest and most effective. Perhaps it is Lindsey's Buddha-serene expression that makes her play so misleading for she can be a ferocious rebounder and an athletic scorer. All that has been missing from her game up to this point has been consistency from contest to contest. This year, if Lindsey has trouble “bringing the noise” every time, Curry will have no shortage of able replacements.
Joining Hicks in the starting line-up will be junior Emily Heikes. Emily has used every "Purdue has no center" statement as fuel for her own personal fire. Nobody in the Big 10 has more to prove than Heikes. What many people forget is that Emily led the team in rebounding (playing less minutes than any starter) on many occasions in 2002-2003. She never gives up on a play, has developed a soft shooting touch, and extends her range every season.
Coming off the bench are upperclassmen Hannah Anderson, Carol Duncan, and Sabrina Keys. They will be joined by freshmen Indi Johnson and Erin Lawless. Duncan, Keys and Lawless are the athletic and mobile posts cut from the mold preferred by Curry. It is Erin's fierce "take-no-prisoners" attitude and accurate high block shots which may earn her the lion's share of the backup minutes. Lawless also possesses three point range, forcing defenders to follow her out behind the arc. This opens up the lane for Wright and others to slash to the basket. Keys has improved significantly from her freshman year, and now can be considered a capable back-up. Carol had troubles playing under control as a freshman, and fouled too quickly to get into the flow of many games. If she can learn to use her aggressive nature and speed for the Boiler’s good instead of evil she will provide a great spark for the Boilers.
In contrast, Indi is an old-school post player. She has shown no indication that she wants to develop a three-point shot or an outside game. What she does is plant herself under the basket and control the low block. Indi has deceptive quickness and can finish a shot despite being bodied up by the opposition. Johnson came to West Lafayette with much less notoriety than the other freshmen, and has been generally overlooked in most of the Boilers pre-season assessments. Before the season is over, however, "everyone will know it's Indi". Anderson seems destined to remain a practice player and fan favorite. The one predictable sign that a game is securely out of reach will be when the shouts of "Put in Hannah" are hollered by the crowd.
The fate of the Old Gold and Black this year rides on Shereka Wright's patellar tendons as much as anything. There is a reason Shereka's picture can be found on everything from the billboards around town to the pocket schedules. She is the team's star player and most reliable scorer. Wright is Purdue's only pre-season Big 10 first-teamer as well as a Naismith player-of-the-year finalist. This season will be all about watching Shereka climb up the Boilermaker record books. Wright has already shattered every Purdue record that has "Free Throw" in the title. Part of this may be because opposing players seem to be inexorably drawn into fouling her. Most of the fouls she draws aren't subjective touch calls, they are muggings. Perhaps it is because her shot release makes the ball look blockable much of the time, but even control players find themselves taking swipes at her. Other teams must devote two or three players to the task of shutting down Wright by concentrating on drawing charging fouls or stopping penetration. In these instances Shereka will find an open teammate for the assist. The one knock on Wright coming into the season was that she did not have an effective pull-up jumper. She has developed one over the summer. Her shot release is not a thing of beauty, but she gets the ball off fast and it goes in most of the time.
Aya Traore, Wright's principle back-up, will miss the start of the season due to a torn posterior cruciate ligament. The junior college transfer is extremely athletic for her height, and can get to the basket with ease. Because she is accurate from the three point line and in, Aya will demand defensive attention everywhere on the court. Look for Aya to take some time learning the system and regaining her mobility in the early portion of the season before becoming an impact player in the future. And in that regard, the future can't come quickly enough for the Boilers.
Freshman Katie Gearlds could be listed under virtually any category as she can play the 1-4 positions. Aya's injury may force Curry to play Katie at the wing, so she will be discussed here. The 2003 Indiana Miss Basketball's style of play is reminiscent of previous Purdue All-Americans Katie Douglas and Stephanie White. She combines the height, rebounding, and post-up skills of Douglas with the court vision, passing, body control, and shooting touch of White. Gearlds looks to follow Douglas and Wright in the Purdue tradition of coming off the bench as a freshman (Katie along with several other non-starters will provide "immediate depth" according to Gold & Black Illustrated) before leading the team for three years. One of the more common announcements over the PA system during that time is sure to be "Basket Lawless, assist to Gearlds." Although Katie is not slated to start any games this year, look for her to be on the court in crunch time from the first game forward.
Erika Valek began to receive some wide spread recognition during last year’s Big 10 Tournament and NCAA play-offs. Between last April and this November all the hard-earned notoriety has vanished like a puff of smoke. Erika was demoted from First to Second Team All-Big 10 in that 5 month span. Not everyone has forgotten, however, as she was named as one of the top 5 point guards in the country by ESPN.com. Erika is a prototypical "scoring point guard" and what is sometimes knocked as poor passing or lack of court vision more often than not is Valek’s choice to score all by herself. If you're looking for a floor general who shoots the ball as a last resort you'll be disappointed in Erika’s play; those who keep an eye on the final score, however, are usually happy with the role she has chosen.
Erika will be backed up by sophomore Sharika Webb and freshman Gearlds. Sharika Jr. is Valek’s opposite – the flashiest part of her game is her passing ability, and she is clearly a “dish first, shoot later” point. Sharika isn’t a speed demon, but her quick hands make her an effective open court defender. Last year Webb had the highlights and lowlights typical of a freshman player, and looks to become a more consistent back-up now that she’s had a year of Big 10 experience under her belt.
Starting in the “2” spot will be senior Beth Jones. Beth had a sub-par exhibition season as she is not 100 % recovered from an off-season knee surgery. Despite her limited play, it is evident that Beth has added the driving lay-up to her arsenal. In a living testament to the adage “there’s never a second chance to make a first impression” Jones is the most underrated starter – mainly because many remember her play as a freshman and sophomore when she was primarily a spot-up shooter. Beth will still nail her open treys, but has become a hard nosed defender who can score off the dribble and contribute in many other ways as well. Beth’s primary back-up is sophomore Ashley Mays. Like Webb, Mays brings a different set of strengths when compared to the starter in her position. Mays’ defining characteristics are her athleticism and speed. Ashley still has some catching up to do because of her missed semester, and in the exhibition games appeared to be “this close” to having everything click into place. When all the pieces fit for Ashley she has the potential to become one of Purdue’s most dangerous weapons.
If the pollsters know what they are doing, Purdue will begin the season 0-2. This is because their first two opponents, Kansas State and Duke, have been ranked above the Boilers in every published pre-season poll. If past history is any guide, however, one can safely assume that the pollsters do not know what they are doing. Look for the Boilers to shock at least one of their first two opponents. After the one-two punch of two top 5 teams, the preseason schedule returns to the balance of solid Top 50 - 100 RPI and occasional cupcake that Curry prefers. For the first time in several years, the Big 10 schedule favors the Old Gold and Black. They begin the conference portion of their schedule at home after over 4 years starting on the road. They do not need to travel to Minneapolis this year, and the two teams they must play only away are both rebuilding with first year head coaches.
11/16 State Farm Tip-off Classic
The team with "no inside game" begins its season against the one which contains All-American Center Nichole Ohlde. The Wildcats enter the season as a consensus Top 5 team. K-State is the home of excellent individual players, but up to this point the team's results make it difficult to understand why they are regarded so highly. The Wildcats best out-of-conference win in 2002-2003 was against Penn State, and they were embarrassed against Notre Dame in the second round of the NCAA tournament on their home court. The Wildcats have used their early departure from the tourney as incentive and enter the 2003-2004 season as a very dangerous team.
11/23 Jimmy V Classic - Raleigh, N.C.
Duke is often described as the team that "hasn't done anything" despite all the McDonalds All-American talent that crowds its bench. In fact there is only one thing the Blue Devils haven't done - win a National Championship. Going undefeated in your conference and getting to the Final Four aren't exactly chopped liver, and Duke is one of the very best teams in the country. Their go-to player is consensus All-American Alana Beard, an athletic slasher with a game similar to Shereka Wright's. Any questions as to Purdue's ability to compete with the best teams in the country and make it to New Orleans will be answered in their first two games.
After the two toughest games of the year, the Boilers will be very glad to return to the "friendly confines" to take on a confidence builder. Purdue beat the Panthers by over 20 points in Milwaukee last year, and should have no trouble this year as well.
UCF Golden Knights Classic - Orlando, FL
11/28 Wake Forest
Wake Forest is the Northwestern of the ACC - a team that has been down so long they have nowhere to go but up. Their record may improve over their 13-15 total from last year, but for Purdue this is as close as they can come to an automatic road W.
11/29 Central Florida
The Golden Knights are one of the best teams in their conference. The Atlantic Sun isn't exactly the Big 10, however, and the Boilers should roll in Orlando.
12/3 @ Valparaiso
The Boilers travel to Valparaiso to complete a home and home series with the Crusaders. Valparaiso is the one mid-major in-state team which seems to hold a special place in the heart of the Boilers as they play them year after year while Butler, Ball State, IUPUI, and Indiana State remain unscheduled.
12/7 @ Houston
This game represents a Texas homecoming for Shereka and Erika. Curry often schedules C-USA teams in pre-conference play, and only tackling one is a decrease from past years' schedules. The Cougars' Chandi Jones led the NCAA in scoring last season, and Joe Curl's squad will test the Boilers in Houston.
12/13 Boilermaker Blockbuster - Indianapolis
After several seasons of sub-par play, rumors out of LA were that UCLA head coach Kathy Olivier was on the way out. In the past two years, however, she has turned the ship around and signed some top level recruits from Southern California. They finished fourth in the Pac-10 last season and should do even better this year. Olivier's job may be secure, but the Boilers should handle the Bruins in Conseco Fieldhouse.
12/19 UC Santa Barbara
The Gauchos ruined the Boiler's perfect pre-conference record when they held on to nip the Boilers 83-82 in the Thunderdome last year. Purdue would like nothing more than to return the favor in Mackey. While many may fret over the Old Gold and Black's ability to match up with 6'8" Lindsay Taylor, their most dangerous player may be Indiana native and Tennessee transfer April McDivitt.
12/30 @Western Michigan
The Bronchos made a game of it last year in Mackey as the feisty Western Michigan team hung around against the Boilers. This year Western is older, more experienced, and will be playing on their home turf. Purdue's superior athleticism should result in a Boiler win, however.
1/2 Penn State, 2/29 @Penn State
The coaches selected the Nittany Lions to win the Big 10 for the second year in a row. It’s hard to argue with the ranking as they return every impact player and add a strong freshman class. Even though she gets all the pub, the team is much more than just high scorer Kelly Mazzante. Tanisha Wright is the best all around player on the team, and she may be coming into her own this year. For the Boilers to compete for the regular season title they must at least split their games against the Lady Lions.
1/4 Notre Dame (part of the Big Ten/Big East Challenge)
Note Dame is once again shoe-horned into the Boiler's Big 10 schedule. Keeping the rivalry series on television and in the forefront of the women's basketball world is well worth the hassle factor, however. The Irish were expected to contend for a Big East title last year. Instead they both seriously underachieved and suffered more than their share of transfers. All that is in the past, however, and the Irish look to be a deeper and better balanced team this year. They should return to the Top 25 and the top third of the Big East. The Mackey court advantage may be negated by the Boiler's exhaustion from playing Penn State 2 days earlier, and this could be an extremely close contest.
1/8 @ Michigan State, 2/22 Michigan State
The Spartans are a team on the brink, waiting for the one impact player (or even the one injury-free season) that can put them over the hump and into the higher echelons of the Big 10. The Boilers have not played particularly well in East Lansing of late, but they’ll have to sweep the series if they hope to win the Big 10.
1/11 @ Illinois, 2/19 Illinois
Angelina Williams has emerged as one of the best players in the conference. She is joined by Cindy Dallas – a player that seemingly has been with the Illini forever – and a solid supporting cast. Purdue has had Illinois number for the past decade or so, however, and this year should prove no different.
1/15 Northwestern, 2/15 @ Northwestern
There are no longer any “gimmi” games in the conference now that the overall quality of the league has improved. The Boilers learned this the hard way last year, as they almost snoozed away an easy win against the Wildcats. If they take the Wildcats seriously, they should win both games with little problem.
The Gophers only meet Purdue one time this year in a home game for the Boilers. Minnesota’s Pam Borton took over a shell-shocked team last year and kept it on the winning track. The only Division 1 School in the state, becoming a Gopher is once again cool for little Minnesotans, and thus their recruiting should remain top notch for a long time. In other words, the Gophers are here to stay, they will be a force to be reckoned with for years to come. Any team with Lindsay Whalen is a dangerous squad, but the Boilers should prevail on their home court.
1/22 @ Ohio State, 2/8 Ohio State
Few programs have ramped up the talent as quickly as the Buckeyes. This year the team includes transfers Michelle Munoz and Ashley Battle and a number of highly ranked recruits. For years Foster finished around third in the SEC. Curry and Portland would like to see that trend continue in the Big 10, while the scarlet and grey are hoping to return to Katie Smith era glory. Both these contests will be tough tests for the Boilers.
1/25 @ Indiana
Indiana is out of step with much of the conference as their strongest players are underclassmen. The Hoosiers look to finish in the bottom of the senior dominated Big 10 this year, and unless there is a turn around in the next several seasons Head Kathi Bennett may be asked to depart Bloomington. Playing against their arch-rival on their home court means a great deal to the Crème and Crimson, and this is a classic “throw the records out the window” contest. The Boilers will need to compete hard and play smart to secure a win in Assembly Hall.
A new day is dawning in Badgerland. All new coaches headed up by Lisa Stone bring a new enthusiasm and energy to Wisconsin. Unfortunately for them, they have pretty much the same old players. The team has too many holes to compete day in and out in the Big 10. Purdue only plays them once this year, and the Boilers should cruise to an easy win.
2/5 @ Michigan
Michigan has been living in a time warp for several years. Recently departed coach Sue Guevara worked year to year without a contract. After several years of underachieving play she was let go and replaced by Southwest Missouri State’s Cheryl Burnett. After Guevara’s departure is was revealed that the players had no off-season conditioning program. Heck, even the Mighty Macs of Ursinus College probably had that. Burnett has a little more to work with than Stone does in Wisconsin, but forecasting anything but a rocky rebuilding year in Ann Arbor is cock-eyed optimism.
2/10 @ Iowa, 2/26 Iowa
The Hawkeyes join the Michigan State Spartans as a program that is flirting with the higher echelons of the conference and the Top 25 Nationally. Head coach Lisa Bluder has a great offensive mind, and her teams can be counted on to score a lot of points. They also tend to give up a lot of points, and their lack of a consistent defense has made it difficult for them to close out tough games. The squad from Iowa City will play hard and can be counted on to trip up a few teams that are higher up the Big 10 ladder. One hopes that the Boilers won’t be one of those teams.
3/4-3/8 Big 10 Tournament
There is a growing chorus of Big 10 coaches who are vocal about their displeasure that Conseco Fieldhouse is the permanent location for the Big 10 Tourney. More than Purdue’s perennial success, it was Indiana’s improbable victory in 2001 that convinced many that the in-state schools had too much of an advantage. In the future the site of the Tournament may travel around the Midwest or join its brother tournament in Chicago. This year, however, the Boilers will defend their Tournament championship in the friendly confines of “Mackey South.”
The Boilers don’t yet know if they’ll qualify for the NCAA tournament (although it would take a huge collapse for them to miss the field of 64), nor what their seed or region might be. What they do know is that they will play their last game in West Lafayette when they take on Iowa on the 26th of February. The NCAA has pre-assigned the venues for the first 2 rounds of the tournament, and Mackey is not one of the chosen 16. The move to pre-assigned venues is said to be a step towards true neutral courts in the women’s tournament. That move can’t come a moment too soon as the current situation is universally unpopular. The additional road games shouldn’t faze a team as mature and talented as the Boilers, and, like Duke and Texas in 2003, Purdue should be able to win 4 NCAA road games and qualify for the program’s fourth Final Four in 2004.