© Old Gold Free Press Columnists
Here is the one, unqualified prediction I will make about this year’s season – it won’t be boring. After that, it’s anybody’s guess. This year’s team looks to be that will find a way to make every game interesting. One would expect that the team that plays its final game in March or April is going to be very different from the one that tips off in November. Along the way there will be plenty of ups and downs as the squad discovers its strengths and weaknesses. It should be a heck of a journey.
This opinions about this year’s edition of the Purdue Women’s Basketball team represent a switch from most seasons. In years past, the perception from West Lafayette was that the Boilers were being dissed by outsiders – under ranked in the polls with our players and coach’s abilities under appreciated. Not this season. This year the greater basketball world holds the team in higher esteem than the locals. The Boilers have been selected to finish 3rd or 4th in the Big 10 by media and coaches and enter the season ranked 23 in the ESPN/Coaches poll. When considering the team from one perspective this ranking is exactly where the Boilers belong. Consider this – the team returns FahKara Malone and Jodi Howell, the starting backcourt from an Elite Eight team. Malone is a 4-year starter at point guard. Also returning is the Big 10’s sixth player of the year, sophomore Brittany Rayburn. Locally, the expectations are quite a bit more modest. The official word from Mackey is that this year is one of rebuilding and waiting – for red shirt players to become eligible and for injuries to key players to heal. Head Coach Sharon Versyp has compared this year to the 2007-2008 season, when bench players were thrust into starring roles after several untimely injuries. It equally easy to understand where the coaching staff is coming from. The team is beginning the season with Chelsea Jones as center, a player who scored seven points last year. No, that’s not an average of seven points per game, that’s seven points total. While the front court players have shown lots of promise, there is no substitute for in-game experience, and the Boilers are sure to struggle against teams with strong post presence.
The backcourt is anchored by FahKara Malone. FahKara is a four year starter, and has spent that time working to become Versyp’s extension on the court. In the past she’s gotten ahead of herself and can play out of control. There have been many players who see everything come together and click their senior year. One hopes this will be Malone’s experience. If she is able to put her stamp on this year’s team, she will give the younger guards time to mature without burden of having to take over.
Jodi Howell has always known how to contribute in every facet of the game, but at times her body wouldn’t allow her to play at the highest level. Even when Jodi’ was most limited she could stroke three point shots like most players make lay-ups. If her play in the exhibition game is any guide, Jodi is ready to be a complete player this year. Her lateral quickness, improved after she began riding the stationary bike half-way through last year, is even better than last spring. This allows her to guard penetrators more effectively and to take the ball to the basket aggressively. As odd as it is to say about a senior who is a three year starter, Jodi Howell just might be the Boiler’s secret weapon this year.
Brittany Rayburn can do something that few other basketball players can do – she can make points happen. While it would seem that every recruited basketball player would have that skill, it is amazing how rare this ability happens to be. She is a player who can receive the ball anywhere from anyone on the court and, at the end of the play, the ball has gone through the hoop. It must be noted that at times that means that Brittany has passed the ball for the assist. For the Boilers to win this year, Rayburn’s role this year is to shoulder the bulk of the scoring, and the sophomore will be counted on to score in double figures every time out. She’s also a good defender and a savvy all around player.. Backing up the guards will be KK Houser, a lightning fast freshman. Judging from the exhibition game, she has an excellent handle and can keep under control even when going a million mils per hour. She represents the fourth guard in a 4 guard line-up, and has the potential to move the team to another level.
The small forward position in this year’s edition of the Boilers has been blended into the backcourt, as they will run the three guard or four guard offense most of the time. This is much easier to do when the guards are six feet tall, as Brittany Rayburn and Ashley Wilson are. Ashley is recovering from an injury suffered last spring, and to date has been an unknown commodity. Her debut during the exhibition game was a revelation – she’s both fast and quick. Any minutes Ashley can contribute will be more than welcome.
The only returning post player to see significant minutes last year was Alex Guyton. A stress fracture will keep her out of the pre-conference games, however. The silver lining is that this will allow the other posts to log more minutes so that the team will be all that much better when she returns. Chelsea Jones has dedicated herself to stepping up. She’s in much better shape than last year, and is ready to assume her role on the court. Fouling will be her largest hurdle. She fouled out in only ten minutes play in the exhibition game. Unfortunately, playing good post defense without fouling is something that comes with experience for most centers. Chelsea won’t have that luxury. The Boilers fortunes may rely on how quickly “Big Country” figures out the secrets of guarding other post players without picking up infractions.
After sitting out the first two games due to NCAA regulations, Sam Woods will join Jones in the front court. Sam is back in the power forward position after a red shirt year. Sam has all the physical tools to succeed; she just needs to become a little bit meaner to compete. The back-up post player is freshman Sam Ostarello. On another team Sam might be a wing player, but here she’s needed in the paint. Sam is a rebounding specialist, and her ability to pull down boards will make it difficult to keep her off the court. Sam can score, too, and has a very exciting future wearing the old gold and black. Before the exhibition game, Laura Garriga has a completely different demeanor when compared to previous years; she had her game face on. For once the bubbly Spaniard was serious and all business. This switch reflected Laura’s new position within the regular rotation. She seemed to settle down the younger players when she was in the game, and her role might be quite similar to Lauren Mioton’s in past years. If she’s going to see the court on a regular basis, Garriga will need to take her open shots in the paint. Even if she doesn’t make them, taking the shots will keep the defense honest and prevent them from overplaying perimeter players.
A coach’s main job when game planning is to find a way to maximize a team’s strengths and minimize its weaknesses. Versyp is faced with a team that has great strengths and potentially fatal weaknesses. It will be a great test of her skills to get the production she needs from the more experienced players while brining along her those that are less experienced. One thing that won’t be troubling the coaching staff is substitution strategy – with only 8 healthy players, some of whom have limitations on the minutes they can play, the coaching staff will be more concerned with keeping at least 5 players on the court. One exciting development is the addition of Ukari Figgs. Ukari is the consummate point guard, with a great understanding of the game. She’s also somebody who understands the type of work and commitment that is needed to succeed at the highest level.
The coaching staff didn’t anticipate the loss of Guyton and Poston when pulling together this year’s schedule, but they did know that they were losing a strong, large senior class. When the schedule was first released there was some griping about the large number of creampuffs on the docket. Nobody’s complaining now – not with 8 healthy players available at the start of the season. Now they are seen as stepping stones that will allow the Boilers to find their rhythm and learn to play together while still earning more W’s than L’s.
11/15 Western Illinois
The Leathernecks represent a big step up from exhibition opponent Lindsay Wilson, but the Summit league member should be allow the Boilers to begin the season with a win.
11/20 – 11/22 BTI Classic
Within a 3 day span the Boilers will play Seattle University, Georgetown, and Dayton. The task of defeating all three seems a little more daunting now that Dayton knocked off #10 Michigan State to open their season. Georgetown usually finds itself in the middle of the Big East, and should provide a worthy opponent. Seattle meanwhile lost badly to UC-Davis, and looks to be the weakest team in the Classic.
11/27 at UC-Riverside
The first away game for an inexperience team is always exciting no matter who the opponent. The Big West team that finished second in their conference will be a good test for the Boilers.
11/29 at Pepperdine
The Waves finished sixth in the Big West last season, and should pose less of a test than UC-Riverside. The second half of a road game is always a challenge, however.
12/03 at Virginia
The Cavaliers represent Purdue’s ACC opponent in the ACC-Big 10 match-up. Virginia is led by All-American Monica Wright. Considered by many as the best guard in the country this year, she’s averaging more than 20 points per game. This represents a stern test for the Boilers, and winning on the Cavalier’s court will allow Purdue to put their stamp on the season.
12/06 and 1/10 Northwestern
The Wildcats are under everybody’s radar, but they have one of the better coaches in the country in Joe McKeown. They are going to surprise some folks this season. Their best player is Amy Jaeschke, a mobile 6’5” nightmare. If the Boilers can keep the ball out of her hands, they should prevail.
12/13 at Oakland
The Boilers get a bit of a breather although every road game will pose a challenge.
Playing in-state teams is said to be good for recruiting and building good will locally. The Purple Aces were terrible all last year, and then caught fire in the post season. This year, Purdue should prevail at home.
The Big South’s Runnin Bulldogs will get run right out of Mackey.
12/28 and 1/14 Minnesota
The Gophers are always tough – the play a physical, hard nosed brand of basketball. They will match their beef up front against our speed in the back court.
The Hoosiers are only on Purdue’s schedule one time this year. Since “Coach Jack’s” appearance on the scene the team has played hard and are knocking on the door to greater respectability. The program is one or two high-impact recruits away from shooting to the top of the Big 10.
1/04 Notre Dame
The Irish will be the 5th team the Boilers play at home, and may be the toughest team faced all year. The team brings everyone back from last year and adds 2009 Indiana Miss Basketball Skyler Gick. In addition, nobody can pick apart another team’s weaknesses like head coach Muffett McGraw. This game should show the Boilers exactly where they stand in the world of D1 basketball.
1/07 and 2/07 Wisconsin
Last year, everybody predicted that Wisconsin would finish last in the Big 10. Instead, they forgot all about their lack of talent and lack of respect and won a bunch of games. Much of the credit goes to new defensive assistant (and ex-IU coach) Kathi Bennett. Perhaps Bennett plus Stone equals one competent head coach.
1/17 and 1/31 Iowa
The Hawkeyes lost a large senior class this year. Even so, Lisa Bluder’s teams seem interchangeable year to year– they contain lots of tall shooters and can score in bunches. Playing defense has never been the team’s strength however, and the inability to get crucial stops usually prevents Iowa from being above average.
1/21 and 2/25 Michigan State
The Spartans began the season ranked number 10, then promptly lost to Dayton. Like their 6’8” center, Allyssa DeHaan, MSU can be extremely inconsistent. They had Purdue’s number last year, however, winning both games in close contests. They are projected to finish second in the conference, and will be extremely tough to beat this year as well.
1/25 and 2/11 Ohio State
OSU has it all this year. They are a legitimate Final Four team, with three time Big 10 player-of-the-year Jantel Lavendar and freshman-of-the-year Samatha Prahalis. In addition to their stars, the Buckeyes are deep and have very good players in every position.
1/28 and 2/14 Penn State
The Lions are in rebuilding mode, and are still several years away from competing at their prior level. Their recruiting has been strong, however, and they are certainly a team heading in the right direction.
2/4 and 2/21 Illinois
Like Penn State, Illinois has brought in some very high profile recruits. The Illini are looking to improve in a hurry.
The Boilers will only meet the Wolverines one time this year, for the final game of the Big 10 season. If Purdue improves as much as the Boiler faithful hope, this should be an easy win. If not, the high energy style of the Wolverines may be too much for the Gold and Black.
The Boilers won their National Championship using a 4 guard offense, and it should serve them well again this year. My crystal ball sees a 20 and 10 regular season record, a second place finish in the Big 10 tournament, and a second round appearance in the NCAA tournament. One more injury and we could be looking at a 10 and 20 record instead. If Guyton comes back without missing a beat and the freshmen play as well in the regular season as they did in the exhibition game, they may live up to all the outside expert’s predictions and win more.