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Heading into the conference schedule with a 9-2 record.

The Purdue women's basketball team is establishing their identity as they start the B1G conference schedule.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

With graduations, newcomers, transfers, and injuries, a college basketball team is always at a crossroads once they transition from the non-conference part of the schedule into the conference part of the schedule.  How tough was the non-con schedule, or not?  What rotations and lineups are beginning to emerge?  What strategies are working or not?  How will the team hold up during a grueling conference slate?  How far can a team progress after a really bad season?  Lots of questions.

Some of the answers are harder to provide than others.  However, trends can be observed.  Based on these, I'll attempt to extrapolate what has transpired so far this season to try and project where the team will finish as well as what the chances are of returning to the NCAA tournament. Coming out of the non-conference schedule with a 9-2 record is probably better than most people expected.

This year's Lady Boilers have definitely established an identity as a team that puts intense defensive pressure on their opponents.  The numbers speak for themselves.  Two opponents, while not very good, were held to 27 and 33 points for the entire game.  I don't care how bad those two teams were (Incarnate Word and Maine), in today's NCAA basketball environment where rules are in place to increase scoring, those numbers are crazy good.  Only one opponent managed to break the 60 point mark in regulation and that was Ball State in a ten point Purdue victory.  The statistics on how many 3 or 4 minute scoring droughts for our opponents are also impressive.  Most or all of our opponents have been held to less than their season scoring average.  How has this been accomplished with inconsistent play from the center position?  I would have to say, a lot of hard work in practice and good team communication skills.  This team has clearly put in the time and effort to develop multiple defenses and maintained discipline within each scheme.  Last game against Maine, Purdue played a switching, trapping man-to-man defense for most of the game and Maine had a hard time even finding an open look.  Against Stanford, a 2-3 zone worked well, which was surprising given the excellent outside shooters the Cardinal have.  Against Louisville, a 1-3-1 zone was used in the second half and seemed to ruin the Cardinal's game plan very effectively.  Conditioning has also played a large part, as defense can be extremely tiring to keep at a high level for 40 minutes. All three freshmen as well as Hall and Hamby have contributed which has helped with depth and given the starters some breaks during the game.   Yes there have been lapses and missed assignments, but overall, the team has played great defense. One area of concern in conference play, however, is that some of these teams will have dominant centers and very experienced and athletic forwards.  Purdue has made good strides in the post after losing Clemons and Bays to graduation.  But post play is still a work in progress.  Other than Horrocks, however, it is hard to fault the effort of our post players.  Thornton, Keisler, Perry, and McBryde have held their own and have continued to improve so far this season.  In particular, McBryde is playing good defense with some really good blocks.  Perry just seems to be the all out effort player on the team, frequently having to pick herself up off the floor after some dive or another.  No doubt Big Ten opponents will be watching film of Purdue and looking for defensive weaknesses to exploit.  However, if the season so far is any indication, teams will most likely have a hard time simulating the kind of defensive pressure Purdue is capable of in practice, and may very well underestimate what the Boilers can do on that side of the ball.

Offensively, Coach V announced early on that a 4-guard 1-post scheme would be used.  This has morphed a bit into a 3-guard 1-center, and 1-swing forward or stretch forward type of scheme which Coach had already anticipated.  McBryde and Perry are proving to be effective guard/forward hybrids, especially Perry.  While April Wilson is the undisputed leader of the team, it is Perry who seems to be the glue player that makes it all work.  She has better guard skills than McBryde, while McBryde is starting to play more like a power forward.  If McBryde can start to hit more outside jumpers to stretch other teams out from the post, which I believe she will develop, it can only help the offense from allowing other teams to pack it in under the basket.  Keisler is working hard on her catch the ball high and put it in the hoop without bringing it down method.  If she continues to do that, it will be exactly what the team needs, and she has the 6-6 frame to get that done.  She is still adjusting to the speed of the college game, but the potential looks to be there.  Thornton is starting at the center position, undersized at an even 6 foot height.  However, she is very athletic and can jump pretty well.  While we would like a bit more consistency from the senior, at least she is healthy and making good contributions to the offense. She has even stepped back and hit some nice jumpers which other teams were not expecting.

It seems as though Purdue has had more of a guard oriented offensive identity through the years.  Think of Steph White and Ukari Figgs, and shooters like Gearlds, Rayburn, and Moses.  This team is not a lot different in that respect.  Wilson, Morrissette, and Keys have really solidified their positions as the 1, 2, and 3 guards.  Even though Keys is only a sophomore, she got so many minutes last year that she plays more like a junior.  Many times when the offense looks to be stagnant, Keys will find a way to make something happen, either with an O-board, assist, or shot.  What can we say about Wilson and Morrissette?  They have been through their shooting woes over the past 2 or 3 years, but overall they have both become effective at making shots and making plays.  They really complement each other in skill sets and have answered any doubts that Purdue could ever replace Houser and Moses.  True, neither is as fast as Houser or as deadeye of a shooter as Moses.  On the other hand, Wilson is playing with an assist to turnover ratio approaching 3.0!  While Morrissette is at around 1.0, these are both better numbers than most of their predecessors.  Quite simply they have brought the turnover numbers down to a respectable level this year, something around 13 per game.  This is lower than any number I can remember in recent history.  Both can drain nicely stroked treys, both are excellent at the pull up jump shot, and both can fearlessly drive the ball all the way to the basket.  This year's team is really doing a good job of rebounding or stealing the ball and pushing the ball up very quickly before opposing defenses can get anything set up.  In today's game this kind of fast paced offense is a necessity if your team wants to have any real success.  Yes the half-court offense needs its set plays, picks, back door cuts, and all of the standard abilities to score against teams who have had time to set their defense.  if you watch teams like UConn who sets all standards, they never fail to play a game in which they don't rush down the court and score before the other teams even know what hit them.  The more transition offense Purdue plays, the more success they will have.

So what can we expect in this season's conference slate?  I would like to be super optimistic and say that we will compete for the championship.  However, with teams like Maryland, that is not happening this season.  Can we finish in the top half?  Absolutely.  Which none of us had much hope for when the season started.  Face it, it isn't just men's basketball where conference play is brutal.  Big Ten women's basketball is nothing to underestimate.  My pick for the top 3 teams would be Maryland, Ohio State, and either Michigan State, Northwestern, or Iowa.  I really don't see us finishing higher than those 5 programs.  Others that might finish higher than Purdue might be Nebraska, Rutgers, or Michigan.  Barring any serious injuries to key players, I see us finishing in the 6th to 8th position at the end of the regular season.  I went through the schedule and made my picks,and I came up with a conference record of 10-8.  It could be worse, but it would be a real challenge to do any better, despite overachieving in the non-conference schedule.  The road schedule this season is going to be tough, to put it mildly.  Part of the variability is just how soon the freshmen McBryde, Murphy, and Keisler can get up to speed.  It is going to be a given that conference play is a grind, plain and simple.  So I see us finishing 10-8 if things go well, and 8-10 if not as well.  Any worse or better than that, and it will be due to some unforeseen occurances.  If indeed the team goes 10-8 in conference, with at least a win or two in the conference tournament, Purdue could have a 20 win team which would likely squeak into the NCAA tournament.  Anything better obviously is possible.  But anything worse is also possible.  Let us just hope and pray that our primary players can keep healthy enough to play through the rest of the regular season.

Even if the team gets on the bubble and gets left out of the NCAA tournament, it will have made major strides after the disaster of last season.  Purdue could make a decent run in the WNIT tournament if that is our fate.  I'm crossing my fingers for a couple of unexpected upsets in our favor and a 20 win record heading into national tournament time, but I'm also looking at reality and the possibility that we fall a bit short of that.  If we do make it into the NCAA tournament, though, I would not expect this team to make it past the second round.  But first things first, let's just wait and see how the conference season progresses.  This is a new season, and I do not expect our team to hover around the cellar for a second straight year.