While the 2005-2006 edition of the Purdue Women's Basketball team may not have the best season ever, they will certainly enjoy a huge upgrade in their overall fortunes when compared to the rocky going they experienced last year. The reasons for an improved forecast can be found in the tangibles; this year's team is healthy, deep, and athletic. It can also be found in the intangibles; the chemistry between the players is excellent, key players have matured, and the squad has gained an additional month of experience by playing in Europe over the summer.
There is enough depth on the team to support an 9 or 10 player rotation every night. That translates into a team that can press and trap for 40 minutes. A pressing style, in turn, allows the defense to generate the offense - i.e. to convert steals into break away lay-ups. Break away lay-ups equal high percentage shots and up tempo games, and the result of that is wins. Expect the Boilers to employ a pressing defense with constant ball pressure for 40 minutes every time out. Pressure defense is not as showy as a gambling defense - one that either results in a steal or a blown defensive assignment- but is more effective in the long run. It wears down opponents, and one can expect many games to be close in the first half and then blown open in the second as a result of the Boiler's relentless pressure.
The excitement about this year's team within the athletic department is palpable. Everyone associated with the Boilers has mentioned something – the excellent morale and chemistry, the new depth, and the improved returning players. Head coach Kristy Curry was practically bursting at the tip-off banquet, and she couldn’t help but guarantee a banner and an NCAA play-off berth before she was done.
Outside of West Lafayette, however, there is precious little Boilermaker buzz. In pre-season polls the team is ranked all over the map, an indication that no one knows quite what to make of this year’s edition of the Old Gold and Black. Ironically, it is the absence of Emily Heikes – the same Emily Heikes that was dismissed as an undersized role player last year- that is now seen as an insurmountable loss. Yes, Emily was the Boiler’s leading rebounder and she did bring a gritty, blue-collar attitude to the games. But she was replaced by 4 excellent freshmen prospects; two of whom are 6'4' and can rebound the ball. Throw in the fact that many of the returning players are much improved and you can see why the people who call West Lafayette their home just might be on to something.
Returning high scorer Erin Lawless will anchor the front court. She has put on muscle over the summer, and her increased strength should help her establish defensive position and finish her shots. Erin remains the player who will get the ball when the Boilers absolutely, positively need a bucket. Also returning is Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton. The smooth sophomore has been hindered by back spasms, but, if her final pre-season exhibition performance is any guide, she’ll continue to contribute in every facet of the game. Senior leadership comes from Carol Duncan. Carol is the team’s “enforcer” as she is an extremely physical player. Her tendency to pick up fouls by the bushel (6 infractions in 31 minutes of action in the pre-season) will limit her effectiveness. One can expect to see Carol on the court when Curry needs some extra muscle, but she’ll need to play under control before she can be expected to be a difference maker.
After several years of making do, the Boilers finally got some much-needed height in the form of freshmen Stephanie Helgeson and Danielle Campbell. Danielle is exceptionally athletic for her 6’4” frame, and gets up and down the court as quickly as any guard. She will contribute immediately.
It is widely said that college players improve the most between their freshmen and sophomore years. This is particularly true if they spent the summer between those two years practicing 6 hours a day with the Russian National team. Natasha Bogdanova is a different player; - stronger, smarter, and much more mature. She will be the Boilermaker’s stealth player this year, underestimated and unaccounted for. It will quickly become apparent, however, that other teams will ignore her at their peril.
Aya Traore has been hot and cold since her arrival at Purdue. There’s no questioning her athletic gifts, but at times her decisions have been suspect and at other times she disappears for long stretches. When Aya is on top of her game she is unflappable and unstoppable. Here’s hoping it will all come together for the junior college transfer during her final year wearing Gold and Black.
Katie Gearlds can play any position from the 1 through the 4. Although she will begin most games as a shooting guard, she will see a good deal of time on the wing as well. It’s not often that a coach frets about a player’s excellent shooting percentage, but that’s exactly the situation with Katie Gearlds. Her 10-12 performance in the pre-season meant just one thing to Coach Curry: she wasn’t shooting the ball enough. Gearlds can get too caught up in setting up her teammates and will let her own offensive game suffer as a result. After a miserable, injury-filled sophomore campaign, KT looks to get back on track and establish herself as one of the best players in the game. Katie’s back up appears to be redshirt freshman Kiki Freeman. Freeman reports that she is happy to settle into a role player status, hoping to be the one to do the “little things” and make the hustle plays that are needed to secure wins. Kiki has been able to use her speed and length to great defensive advantage, and may see time on the court when the Boilers press or trap.
Almost lost in the general hand wringing and finger pointing that defined last year’s season was the fact that Sharika Webb made significant progress over the course of the year. It wasn’t steady, to be sure, but by the NCAA tournament she was taking care of the ball and running the offense competently. In her senior year Sharika brings back the focus and intensity it took her so long to develop. Although the point guard position is still not the Boiler’s strength, there now looks to be a legitimate Big 10 caliber “floor general” on the roster. While Sharika runs the show, junior college transfer Cherelle George will be learning the ropes. George possesses the ball handing ability and athleticism to penetrate into the lane, and she should emerge as a force when she learns to adjust to Division I defenses. It may take even longer for the rest of Division I to adjust to her defense. Cherelle has quick hands and feet, and uses her lack of height to her advantage defensively – zipping in and swiping the ball from unsuspecting opponents.
Expect Jodi Howell to come off the bench as shooting guard early and often. In her short time as a Boilermaker, The 2005 Indiana Miss Basketball has established herself as a heady player who makes good decisions with the ball, can score from anywhere, and is more than happy to get on the floor for a loose ball or take a charge. Lauren Mioton rounds out the guard contingent. Lauren’s play and style is extremely reminiscent of Beth Jones. Like Beth, Lauren is not likely to see lots of minutes as a freshman. In her short time during the exhibition games she shot 100% (2-2) including a buzzer beating scoop shot. Ashley Mays has elected to place academics and the team over her ego and has decided that she will contribute as a practice player this year. By that decision alone she has demonstrated what senior leadership is all about.
One of the largest challenges Kristy Curry faces is to prevent other programs from poaching her assistants. Kelly isn't deemed movable for obvious reasons, but he's not the one with blood ties to one of the country’s premier AAU programs. Plenty of head coaches would love to enjoy the advantage in Indiana and Ohio recruiting that Jannon Roland and Katrina Merriweather represent. All Curry can offer to keep them is a family atmosphere and a competitive salary. For the later Curry will need to rely on Morgan Burke to loosen the purse strings. While neither Jannon or Katrina is the sort who will merely go with the highest bidder, Purdue must at least stay in the ballpark when they are enticed with big money offers from other schools. Here's hoping the combined intangible and tangible rewards that come with assisting at Purdue keep the staff intact for a long time.
The promotions brain trust in the athletic department has a very specific task this season. That task is to get fannies on the benches for the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. Purdue has been selected as one of 8 first and second round sites for games played on March 19 and 21. Don’t believe me? Check the fine print on the bottom of page 61 of the media guide. That’s about the only place Purdue is admitting that they will actually be hosting the contests. IF, and it's a very big if, the venue attracts a large number of fans and Mackey looks full on TV, there is more than a fair chance Purdue will have the opportunity to host in the future. If the Purdue rounds are a dud, the Boilers are unlikely to play a NCAA game on Keady Court after 2008.
This year's publicity campaign has not gotten off to an auspicious start. As was the case in 2003, season ticket holders have been given the opportunity to purchase tournament tickets along with their regular season ticket packages. Also like 2003, the athletic department appears determined to keep the first and second round games a secret. Neither the "We Got Your Game" posters available for free in Mackey, the pocket schedules, or the official Purdue web site mention the NCAA tourney games at all. They do have the correct location of the Purdue-Notre Dame game, so that’s an improvement over the smaller posters that accompanied the season ticket applications. I sincerely hope that come February the boys in the Boiler BarberShop spend some time discussing those "8 great teams and the special atmosphere of March Madness" and that a few NCAA tourney billboards pop up around the state. I have a sinking feeling, however, that Purdue's commitment to promoting the tourney will be to have Kristy tell fans to "bring a friend to the game" during her weekly radio show, and to place some ads in the local papers a day or two prior to the event.
The Boilermakers’ schedule was widely panned when it first appeared, and their pre-conference slate of games in Mackey Arena is rather anemic. There are two reasons for this. First, many of the games against weaker opponents were scheduled with geography and NCAA tournament positioning in mind. While Curry would have loved to schedule all tough opponents, if she’s going to play teams located in Indianapolis and Fort Wayne she doesn’t have much in the way of options. Secondly, in the past 5 years the Big 10 conference has gotten much stronger. Gone are the days when Purdue could look at their conference sisters and count 13 or 14 wins right off the top. In order to hit the magical 20-win mark, a certain number of sure wins must be played some time. If they can’t occur in conference, then they must be scheduled out of conference.
Taken all together, however, the Boilers have an extremely rigorous road ahead of them. As determined by the Pre-Season AP poll, the #19 Boilers will play 8 games against superior opponents in the regular season. The Old Gold and Black will play the 4th (Ohio State) and 16th (Minnesota) best teams in the country twice. They will also play #10 Michigan State, #12 Texas (if the Longhorns beat South Carolina and Purdue beats George Washington), #15 Notre Dame, and #18 DePaul. That should be more than enough to prepare the team for championship play.
11/18 Butler Playing in Indianapolis is an important way to maintain a recruiting presence in the state capitol. So when the Boilermaker Blockbuster was dropped, Curry needed to find another venue in The Circle City. Enter Butler, a team that played .500 ball overall (14-14) and in the Horizon league (8-8). Perhaps the fact the Bulldogs are returning 4 starters is reason to hope for an improved record overall, but they will not be much of a match for the Boilers in Mackey.
11/25 George Washington – First Round of the Grand Bahama Junkanoo Jam.
The Colonials are a good Atlantic 10 team that made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament last year. They are ranked #23 in Street and Smith’s pre-season poll (the Boilers are unranked by the publication) and will provide a stern test for the Boilermakers.
11/26 Either South Carolina or Texas – Second Round of the Grand Bahama Junkanoo Jam
Texas is an enigma – like Georgia, they habitually do less on the court than their talent would suggest. The team lost Jamie Carey to the Connecticut Sun as well as two other starters, so a down year is predicted for the Longhorns. They still have All-Everything Tiffany Jackson in the middle and deserve every bit of their #12 ranking, however. A win here puts Purdue in the Top 25 for the rest of the year.
The Gamecocks of South Carolina are a good team that usually gets pummeled in the rough SEC. Don’t let last year’s 8-21 record fool you, the team returns every player and is a quality opponent. They aren’t likely to make it past Texas, however, so the Boilers will probably face Susan Walvius’ squad if they can’t get past George Washington.
11/29 Arkansas State
The last addition to the Boilermaker dance card, the Indians are a solid Sun Belt team who made it to the third round of the WNIT post-season tournament in 20005. They should give the Boilers a good fight, but anything but a Purdue win would be a major upset.
12/1 at Western Michigan
Curry holds the Broncos’ head coach Ron Stewart in high regard because his teams use the sophisticated defensive and offensive sets that are employed by many Big 10 teams. The excellent preparation value presented by Western keeps this Mid-American Team on the Boiler’s radar. Even in Kalamazoo, however, the Boilers should prevail.
12/3 at DePaul
The Blue Demons are a solid team, and they feature versatile scorer Khara Smith. The team is ranked #18 by the Associated Press, and is expected to hold its own as one of the newest members of the Big East. They will be tough to beat in Chicago.
12/7 Notre Dame
The Purdue/Notre Dame match-up is a natural rivalry that always seems to bring out the best in both teams. Last year, however, was all Fighting Irish. The tables may be turned this year as the Domers lost Jackie Batteast to graduation and the game will be held in the friendly confines. The Irish return Megan Duffy, regarded by some as the best point guard in the college game, and will be a “tough out” for the Boilers no matter where they play.
12/11 Valparaiso in Fort Wayne
Purdue is playing Valparaiso in one game of an event hosted by IPFW. The real star of the match-up is the venue. The Boilers hope to convince the NCAA that Fort Wayne is just the type of mid-size city that should host a regional final in the near future. On the court the Old Gold and Black should have little trouble subduing the Crusaders.
12/19 Centenary at the Mississippi State Classic
The Ladies is the weakest team on the schedule this year; indeed, they are among the worst in Division 1. Any team that finishes 0-16 in the Mid-Continent Conference has nowhere to go but up. The Boilers should barely break a sweat as they await the winner of the MSU/Morehead State game.
12/20 Either Mississippi State U or Morehead State
The smart money says that Purdue will play the Bulldogs. An average SEC team – think the Illinois of their conference. No school from a major conference should be counted out on their home court, however, and the Boilers will need to pay attention if they hope to secure the victory.
12/29, 2/26 Wisconsin
It seems to be a Big 10 tradition that Purdue opens the conference season against the Badgers. Wisconsin is a team on the rise under second year head Lisa Stone. The team features Big 10 freshman of the year Jolene Anderson, but they remain too young and too talent poor to do much in the conference. In another 2-3 years they may be trouble, but this season the Boilers should cruise.
1/1, 2/23 Ohio State
Ohio State is the unanimous choice to win the conference. There are many folks who believe this is a Final Four team, and it is hard to argue with that assessment. They are anchored by Jessica Davenport, a force of nature on the low block. Jessica is going to find herself surrounded with defenders all the time until the Buckeyes can prove that somebody can consistently hit outside shots. The leading contenders for that honor are Ashley Allen and Marscilla Packer. If either makes more than 30% of their three point attempts, the Buckeyes will be nearly unstoppable.
1/5, 2/19 Indiana
Kathi Bennett talked a great game, but could never seem to get over the hump in Bloomington. When she left Purdue alumna Sharon Versyp took over a decimated program. The Hoosiers have one of the better backcourts in the conference, but not enough up front to win many games. Versyp may be able to shift the in-state balance of power in the future, but this year the Boilers should prevail over their rivals without much difficulty.
1/8, 2/16 Michigan
Michigan is a team in rebuilding mode, although they may begin to turn the corner this season as head coach Cheryl Burnett is three years into the project. She has a proven track record and is bringing in a better class of recruit that has worn the Maize and Blue in some time. Like Indiana, the Wolverines hope to see better days in their future. Their present will have a hard time hanging with the athletic Boilers.
1/12, 2/12 Minnesota
For the second year in a row the Gophers’ best player was selected in the Top 5 of the WNBA draft. Minnesota has no superstar a la Lindsey Whalen or Janelle McCarville this year. Instead they have a team full of hard nosed, talented players who will go toe to toe with anyone for 40 minutes. Ranked #16, the Gophers are always tough to play in Minneapolis. Playing them in Mackey won’t be a walk in the park either.
1/19, 2/5 Penn State
Once a perennial Big 10 power, Penn State has imploded. After an early exit in the 2005 NCAA tournament, head coach Rene Portland allegedly told three of her players in the locker room immediately after the game that they would no longer be welcome on the team. Apparently she failed to notice that this was 2005, not 1805. The players knew what year it was. They did what aggrieved parties do in 2005 – they went to the press to complain and then they sued. Amid all the distractions of the lawsuit and the protests is the fact that the team will probably be awful. They are inexperienced, not particularly talented, and sparse in number. This year’s edition of the Lady Lions would have a difficult time securing a winning record in the Missouri Valley Conference. They can look forward to having their brains beat out on a daily basis in the Big 10.
1/22 at Illinois
The Fighting Illini finished 7th in the Big 10 conference last year. That sounds just about right for this year as well. Theresa Grentz’s team lacks much in the way of star power, and, if past history is any guide, they will turn the ball over too much and defend sporadically.
1/26 Michigan State
Even though the Spartans lost 2 key starters from last year, they return 9 kids who played in the National Championship game last April. That tends to stick with a person. The team features Lindsay Bowen and Liz Shimek and a very good supporting cast. They are ranked #10 for good reason, they are a quality opponent who will give the Boilers all they can handle.
The Wildcats join the Wolverines and Hoosiers in rebuilding mode. Unfortunately for second year head Beth Combs, the Purple and White are starting quite a bit further back. The team could improve a huge amount and still be the weakest in the league by a large margin. In a tough conference, the Wildcats represent the closest thing to a breather for the Boilers.
2/2 at Iowa
No team has been as bitten by the injury bug as much as Iowa. It seems that every year the pundits predict great things for the team, only to see major attrition before the first game. The same has happened again, as the Hawkeyes are extremely thin due to a rash of ACL tears. It looks like 2005-2006 will represent another year of “what could have been” for the team from Iowa City.
Smack in the middle of the Big 10 schedule, the Mastodons represent a “confidence builder” for the Boilers. IPFW is an Independent school (although they hope to join the Horizon Conference soon), and thus needs to schedule out of conference teams all year. By coming to Mackey they allow Purdue to play at home an extra time. This seems like a fitting trade in exchange for the Boilers’ trip to Ft. Wayne earlier in the year.