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PURDUE WOMENS BASKETBALL:
Big 10/ACC Challenge Preview: Part I
Author: Jimmy D
© Old Gold Free Press Columnists
This is a great concept. Two major conferences, with relatively equal match ups top to bottom, playing a full slate of games over a two or three day period. While each team has only one opponent to worry about, a fan can get a good gauge of the relative strength of each conference as similar opponents are scheduled to reach competitive equity. Besides the Junkanoo Jam in the Bahamas and Coach Pat Summitt’s singular mission in Knoxville throughout the entire non-conference schedule, is anyone in the NCAA women’s basketball world doing as much to improve the quality of non-conference portion of the season? In the third year of a four year agreement, congrats to the Big 10 and the ACC. Next season, we get the final year of the Big 10/ACC Challenge and the inaugural year of the Big 12 vs. Big 10.
Last year, the ACC came out on top with seven wins against only four defeats. Losses at the top for Ohio St. (vs. North Carolina), Purdue (vs. Maryland), Michigan St. (vs. Georgia Tech) and Iowa (vs. Duke) provided the ACC with clear top tier dominance. Those Big 10 losses were offset with victories by Minnesota (vs. Boston College), Michigan (vs. NC State), Wisconsin (vs. Virginia Tech) and Indiana (vs. Miami, Fl.). However, defeats for Penn St. (vs. Florida St.), Illinois (vs. Virginia) and Northwestern (in overtime to Clemson) gave the overall edge to the ACC.
Here is a rundown of this year’s match-ups in three installments:
Installment #1 - Ohio St. vs. Duke, Purdue vs. Virginia, and Michigan St. vs. UNC
Ohio St. Buckeyes vs. Duke Blue Devils
Although Duke welcomes back starting PG Jasmine Thomas and F Joy Cheek, the Blue Devils lose three starters from their 2008-09 team: 6’-5” C Chantel Black, the team’s top scorer at 14.2 ppg and top rebounder with 278 boards, F Carrem Gay and G Abby Waner. On the plus side, Coach Joanne McCauley played all twelve players, with F/G Bridgette Mitchell and G/F Keturah Mitchell starting more than 10 games each, and Karima Christmas and Krystal Thomas making significant contributions off the bench. With Black gone, Duke will be looking to 6’-4” Jr C Krystal Thomas or 6’-5” Fr C Allison Vemerey to carry the load. Vemerey played for France in the U19 World Championships this past summer in Bangkok, Thailand. But bringing players over from Europe has not always been a slam dunk. Going up against the Ohio State Buckeyes and two-time Big 10 Player of the Year, Jantel Lavender, may be illuminating, as it could be Lavender’s first test this year down low. On paper, the inside-outside combo of Lavender-Prahalis favor Ohio St, but Duke has some firepower of its own. However, the Blue Devils dismal shooting performance against Texas A&M does not bode well. In that game, F Joy Cheek was 2-12, G Jasmine Thomas was 9-28, while Kathleen Scheer and Keturah Mitchell were a combined 1-12 off the bench. Ouch. Clay Kallam’s 2009-10 season preview, found at www.fullcourtpress.com does not look kindly on those teams that come after UConn and Stanford in the preseason rankings, Duke and Ohio St included. His summary of Duke states: “The Blue Devils should be pretty good next year, but this season, they won’t be as good as they were last year.” The Buckeyes don’t fare much better: “The (OSU) recruits have their detractors and though Sammy Prahalis should be better, is she going to be better enough to make up for the loss of both Allen and Ashlee Trebilcock? In a word, no.” But wait a minute here. First of all, Prahalis does not have to make up for anyone’s absence. Coach Foster has plenty of other options. Let’s not forget that Allen was inconsistent and could disappear for the big games. And Trebilcock was not in Foster’s good graces at the end of last season. If the Buckeyes play in the WNIT is any indication, it looks like Coach Foster is going the athletic route, starting both G Brittany Jackson and Fr G Taylor Hill. Hill garnered the first-ever Big Ten women's basketball Freshman of the Week award, averaging 14 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists without a turnover, connecting on 57.9 percent of her shots from the field. The freshman had 9 points and 9 boards in her collegiate debut against Eastern Illinois, before exploding for 19 points, 6 boards and 6 assists vs. Bowling Green. Jr F Sarah Schultze had a career day against Eastern Illinois with 18 points and nine boards, shooting 50 percent from the 3-point line (3-6), while Jr G Brittany Johnson had 15 points in the Buckeyes victory over UAB. All these efforts were in a supporting role, as Jr C Jantel Lavender continues to dominate lesser opponents, scoring more points than most players dream of. Be that as it may, if the Buckeyes want to come out on top in this contest, they will need to bring a mental toughness and desire to win the big game that has sometimes been missing in the past. Pencil in Samantha Prahalis and put a check in that box.Prediction: Ohio St. wins at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Purdue Boilermakers vs. Virginia Cavaliers
This should be an interesting match-up as both the Cavaliers and the Boilermakers can claim to have found some preseason love this year. While Virginia is ranked 14th in the Associated Press 2009-10 preseason poll, the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll has Virginia at #18 and the Boilermakers at #23. Both teams have experienced, solid backcourts and major voids to fill on the front line. Virginia loses F Lyndra Littles and C Aisha Mohammad to graduation, while 6’-4” F Kelly Hartig has returned to Colorado to continue her studies. Head Coach Debbie Ryan’s incoming freshman post players, 6’-3” C Simone Egwu (40) and 6’-4” C Erinn Thompson (33) will have to step up quickly. Purdue, on the other hand, loses 5th year seniors F Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton, F Kiki Freeman and F Natasha Bogdanova as well as C Danielle Campbell. Purdue will be relying on Sophomores C Chelsea Jones, who saw very little playing time last year, and Sam Woods, who redshirted in 2008-09 due to academic commitments. Jones has to show that she has the quickness to anchor the post position without getting into foul trouble, and Woods needs to embrace the physicality of being a forward at the collegiate level. 6’-0” Freshman Ashley Wilson (71) and 6’-2” Sam Osterello (57) will also be pressed into service as So C/F Alex Guyton will probably not be back from her injury for this match-up. In the backcourt, Senior PG FahKara Malone, with assistance from freshman K.K. Houser (146) will match up with PG Paulisha Kellum, who is returning after last year’s season ending knee injury. Virginia also adds two guards from their freshman class, rated No. 7 by the All-Star Girls Report, 5’4” PG China Crosby (30) and 5’-10” SG Lexie Gerson (42). But the X Factor is Virginia’s 5’-11” Senior G Monica Wright, named a preseason first team All-American by Lindy's College Basketball Preview, and also a preseason candidate for both the Wooden Award and the State Farm Wade Trophy. Wright returns for her senior campaign after leading the Atlantic Coast Conference in scoring last season (20.5 points per game) and is poised to surpass Dawn Staley and become UVa's all-time scoring leader. Purdue will try to counter with the tandem of Senior 3-pt. sharpshooting G Jodie Howell and Sophomore sensation G Brittany Rayburn. Rayburn has yet to show the mid and long range shooting consistency that would allow her the recognition afforded players like Wright. Whereas Wright, tabbed as the ACC Preseason Player of the Year, has already shown that she is the real deal. Perhaps it’s only the difference between an outstanding sophomore and an outstanding senior. As it is, slight advantage - Virginia.Prediction: Virginia wins at home in John Paul Jones Arena.
Michigan State Spartans vs. North Carolina Tar Heels
North Carolina finished last year on a sour note, coming in 4th in the regular ACC Conference standings, losing to Maryland, 95-84, in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament, then bowing out of the NCAA Tournament with a Sweet Sixteen loss to Purdue. And for 2009-10, patience may be required early on. With the largest freshman class in recent memory making up one-third of the Carolina roster, head coach Sylvia Hatchell knows that there will be some growing pains. But don't expect that to be an excuse, as she has great expectations for this team, with Jr guards Italee Lucas and Cetera De Graffenreid and Sophomore F/C Chay Shegog returning. And let’s not forget about 5’-5” So G She'la White who scored 16 points in 18 minutes off the bench for the Tar Heels, in their win over Coastal Carolina. Staring So F Laura Broomfield had 12 points and a career-high 14 rebounds in that game. And then there are the freshmen. Rated the No. 2 recruiting class in the country by the All-Star Girls Report, Coach Hatchell gets three of the five freshman checking in at 6-feet or taller. 6’-3” Cierra Robertson-Warren (76) and 6’-5” Waltia Rolle (67) are long and athletic and should shore up the post for the Tar Heels, while guards Tierra Ruffin Pratt (10) and Krista Gross (39) are scorers. Hatchell said Ruffin-Pratt, who was selected the preseason ACC rookie of the year, is the best passer on the team. The Tar Heels overall team size and athleticism could to be a major asset against the Spartans. On the other hand, while the Spartan team colors may be green and white, they are blue collar thru and thru, both offensively and, more importantly, defensively. History has shown that the UNC can struggle with those teams in the Big 10 that bring that blue collar defensive intensity to the court. With an experienced, battle-tested roster, the Spartans will not back down. Already losing So F Courtney Schiffauer for the year to a knee injury simply means they will circle the wagons again. Schiffauer started 13 games as a freshman (10-3 MSU record) and was second among Big Ten freshmen in field goal percentage. This year, she was on fire, leading the team in scoring with 16.5 ppg before her injury. All the more important that 6’-9” senior C Allyssa DeHaan brings that senior urgency. As a final note, the status of 6’-3” Sr F Jessica Breland has not yet been finalized, but I can’t believe that Coach Hatchell will do anything other than redshirt Breland. Even if the doctors clear her to play this year, after Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (cancer) surgery in June, and five months of chemotherapy, in all probability, she will need time to regain her energy for living, let alone for high octane Tar Heel basketball.Prediction: Michigan State falls short in trying to pull another upset in East Lansing. North Carolina just has too many weapons and leaves with a victory.
Coming next: Minnesota vs. Maryland, Iowa vs. Boston College, Indiana vs. Florida St., and Wisconsin vs. North Carolina State.