A high-scoring offense based around excellent perimeter players; superb shooting from the floor, the FT line, and 3-point land; a fine passing team that isn't easy to rattle into turnovers; an amazing junior guard who will be in contention for Big Ten player of the year and Kodak All-American honors her final two collegiate seasons. Yes, the Boilermakers just played Penn State at home, but these accolades also represent the qualities that make the Minnesota Golden Gophers such a force in the conference.
With an overall record of 14-1 (3-1 in conference play), the Minnesota women's basketball program has made a complete turnaround from where it was a few years ago: the once prominent program suffered for years under inadequate and oftentimes shocking coaching. Big Ten victories were far and few between, the team wasn't playing in Williams Arena, and high school players left the state in droves. Minnesota was easily one of the worst basketball programs in the United States, especially considering it came from one of the power conferences and had such a deep talent base in its backyard.
Fortunately a change was made in the coaching staff, the program changed directions to become one of the offensive forces in the nation, and a new Golden Age has developed around the Golden Gopher program: the team plays in Williams Arena and averages almost 6,000 fans per game. School records were set last year for total victories and Big Ten victories, while the program got off to its best start ever and highest national ranking this year. And the pipeline of star Minnesota high school players to other states has been shut off. Coach Pam Borton was brought in from Boston College to lead the team this year after its previous coach left the program and has continued to keep its play at a high level.
The Gophers currently rank first in the Big Ten in points per game, FG percentage, and assists per game. Minnesota's defense, however, is just as impressive as it allows opponents only 39.4% FG accuracy and the Golden Gophers are tops in the conference at steals per game. Minnesota has had difficult games in the Big Ten this year, losing by 30 at Penn State, but they've been on a roll of late, demolishing Iowa by 29 and beating Illinois by 15 at home.
Learn more about the Golden Gophers at the following addresses:
http://www.gophersports.com/Sports/sport.asp?sport_name=Basketball&sport_id=wBasket (official U. of Minnesota site)
http://www.bigten.org/schedule/reportView.cfm?listing=2&sport=3&school=6&season=2002-2003 (Big Ten team site)
Junior guard Lindsay Whalen deserved last year's Big Ten Player of the Year honor. She also should have been named to the Kodak All-America team but, for some reason, was left off the then-sophomore-dominated squad. Look for the former trend to continue this year and the latter to be reversed as Whalen is undisputably the Gophers' best all-around player and the most underexposed star in the nation.
It isn't so much that Whalen is a great scorer at 24.4 points per game, it's that she's efficient to the point of being scary, hitting on 63.1% of her FG, 88.1% of her FT, and 36.2% of her 3-point shots. Those numbers either mirror or surpass those of Camille Cooper's (FG), Ukari Figgs's (FT), and Stephanie White-McCarty's (3-pt) career numbers. It isn't that Whalen is an unselfish player, it's that she has more than twice as many assists as any other Golden Gopher this year and ranks second in the Big Ten at more than six per game. It's isn't so much that Whalen's tough, it's that she's 4th in rebounds per game in conference play at only 5'8". An all-freshman team performer when her first Minnesota coach was unceremoniously dumped, Whalen blossomed last year under coach Brenda Oldfield and has continue to do so with a new set of coaches guiding her and prodding her along. To perform at such a high level under 3 different coaches in three years, to be the public face for a program that is on the rise and could have a tsunami-like impact on the national scene in the future, to be so tough, efficient, and unselfish is what makes Lindsay Whalen the best there is in the Big Ten not only last season, but this season as well.
For more about Lindsay Whalen, type in the following addresses:
http://www.startribune.com/stories/512/3594444.html (the Star-Tribune reports on Whalen's rebounding abilities and near-triple double against Iowa)
http://espn.go.com/ncw/s/20questions/2001/whalen.html (20 questions from ESPN.com)
http://www.gophersports.com/Sports/player.asp?sport_name=Women's%20Basketball&sport_id=wBasket&player_id=1290 (official Minnesota website bio)
http://chicagosports.chicagotribune.com/sports/college/cs-020319whalensilvermar19.story (the Chicago Tribune's article about Whalen and her amazing sophomore success story)
The big games seem to build on one another, don't they? First the Boilermakers face a stern test from the then-top team in the Big Ten, Penn State, at home. Now the Boilermakers must face another high-octane team in Minnesota for the only time this year. Purdue is now the "team on the roll" in the Big Ten, with three consecutive victories, but Minnesota has been beyond lights out in its last two games. Add that more than 10,000 tickets have been solid already for Sunday afternoon's game (see http://www.gophersports.com/sportsNews/press_release.asp?news_id=6804&sport_id=wbasket for details) and the Golden Gophers are the team with the momentum.
Last year's Valentine's Day Massacre happened at a most inopportune time for Purdue: the team was on the verge of wrapping up the Big Ten title and solidifying its #1 seed in the post-conference tournament. Unfortunately, Whalen scored 41 in the best game of her career and the Boilermakers are forced to wonder if they'll even tie for the conference championship. This year's game will have a different impact: it's relatively early in conference play and every team has at least one loss. Minnesota can avenge its loss later in the year when Penn State visits, but the Boilers will have no rematch with the Gophers later in the year. With surprising teams like Illinois and Ohio State offering tough play this year to all-comers, expect the conference champ to end the year with at least 3 losses and maybe 4. While neither team wants two losses this early, it isn't a problem that can't be overcome.
Defense is a key for the Boilermakers again, but Whalen presents much more of a challenge than Kelly Mazzante of PSU did. Yes, she's great from the 3-point range, but she's just as deadly inside and takes many more shots inside than out. Try to double-team Whalen and she'll pass off either to 2nd-leading scorer Corrin Von Wald or past FOY Janel McCarville inside. If there's not defensive balance by all 5 Boilermakers, the Golden Gophers may score at will.
Purdue must also set the tempo for this game: if either team scores in the 90s, it's not to Purdue's advantage. Mary Jo has a size advantage versus every Golden Gopher, so she may be the focus of the Minnesota defense. Still, she's got to be aggressive with her shots and get at least 10 field goal attempts in the game: as the half-court queen, Mary Jo must keep the Boilers solid in the paint.
Finally, another player besides Shereka will have to step up in a major way. Shereka won't get 18 free throw attempts against the Golden Gophers: a crowd of 10,000+ will get on the officials enough that they'll turn a blind eye to some fouls. And if Shereka doesn't get those points from the line, someone else will have to deliver with key shooting. Lindsey came out of her mini-slump a few games ago, Beth and Mary Jo came through against Penn State, so perhaps Erika will have to continue the trend.
Can a higher-ranked team be considered an underdog in a game? Sunday afternoon's game against Minnesota may be one of the best examples of such an occurrence. While it wouldn't be a shocker, a Purdue victory against the Minnesota Golden Gophers would go a long way to erase natioanl memories of the MSU loss and propel the team back into the spotlight. The Boilers must play with enough urgency, intelligence, and togetherness to do so, however. All of them.