2016-17 WBB Preview
It seems like only yesterday that former AD Morgan Burke (man, it feels good to write that) was handing out contract extensions like candy. Well, I guess it was maybe a few months ago, but anyway, one of the recipients of Burke's largess was Sharon Versyp. You don't have to look far to find those who questioned the extension, particularly given the 11-20 season that Purdue had under Versyp in 2014-15. In fairness to her, that was an injury-plagued season, and it's entirely possible that the turnaround her team experienced in 2015-16 was enough to justify another two years in West Lafayette.
And it was a pretty good turnaround. The Boilers rebounded to post a 20-12 record, the seventh 20-win season in Versyp's 10 years at Purdue and nine wins better than 2014-15, and they just managed to squeak into the NCAA tournament, losing their first-round game to Oklahoma. The only other time a Versyp-coached Purdue squad failed to break .500, in 2009-10, the next four seasons brought winning conference records and 20-win seasons, including back-to-back 25-win campaigns in 2011-12 and 2012-13. Could the Boilers be poised for similar success this season?
The loss of three-year starter April Wilson will be noticed. Wilson finished her career 22nd on the all-time scoring list (1200 points), 14th in threes made (127), 22nd in free throws made (235), 11th in free-throw percentage (.781), 5th in assists (515), 1st in A/TO ratio (1.68), 12th in steals (216), and 14th in minutes played (3697). Wilson frequently was called upon to produce when the Purdue offense wasn't generating shots, and until the late-season emergence of Dominique McBryde as a post threat, that was happening often. April led the team in both points and assists; someone's going to have to do more than just replace her minutes this season.
The Boilers also lose guard Hayden Hamby and forward Torrie Thornton. Both were rotation players; even though Thornton was nominally a starter (25 of 31 appearances were starts), she averaged less than 16 minutes a game, and Hamby's minutes were similar (although limited due to injuries that kept her out of 11 games).
In addition, Erica Moore and Justine Hall transferred mid-season, making a total of five departing players for Versyp.
Purdue welcomes four true freshmen to West Lafayette: 5'9" guard Lamina Cooper, 5'6" guard Miracle Gray, 6'1" forward Ae'Rianna Harris (pictured above), and 5'8" guard Dominique Oden. Cooper and Harris are five-star recruits (as well as teammates at Lawrence North), and the Boilers could really use some help, so even though exactly two freshmen have started at least half the time as freshmen during Versyp's career at Purdue (FahKara Malone and Courtney Moses), don't be surprised if one or both manage to win starting roles at some point during the season. (McBryde ended up fifth in minutes played last season but started just one game.)
Versyp primarily ran a three-guard lineup onto the floor in 2015-16, so it's a fortunate thing that two of those three starting guards return. Senior Ashley Morrissette and junior Andreona Keys will likely keep those spots to begin the season, with sophomores Tiara Murphy and Abby Abel also coming back.
Morrissette and Keys both played in all 32 games and averaged 30+ minutes; while some of that was due to the absence of depth, it was mostly due to contributions. The two are opposite sides of a two-guard coin: Morrissette is the jump shooter, leading the team with 61 threes and 170 attempts last season (nearly half her attempts were from behind the arc), and Keys is the driver, with her .439 FG% (.466 in conference play) the best for a backcourt Boiler; Andreona also led the team with 79 offensive rebounds and was second behind Perry in total boards (164, 5.1 per game). Murphy has the kind of shot that should blunt the loss of Wilson; Tiara shot a blistering .476 from three last year, although she took just 21 threes. Her accuracy will drop with added volume, but anything .400 or above should help to free up space for Keys and the post players. Abel saw limited action in 2015-16 and will likely continue to do so this year.
With three incoming guards, there are seven players (six, if you assume Abel gets mop-up duty) for at most three spots. I wouldn't be surprised if Gray or Oden redshirted; if we look at the Ursuline exhibition for guidance, Gray seems more likely to redshirt, getting just 9 minutes to 24 for Oden. Cooper should pick up Hamby's minutes, or at least a portion of them, with Gray/Oden/both sharing Wilson's minutes with Murphy.
The other senior and returning starter is Bridget Perry; Boiler fans no doubt hope that sophomore McBryde is as productive under a full load as she was with part-time minutes as a freshman.
Perry missed one game due to injury, but started the other 31, averaging just under 27 minutes per game. With the emergence of McBryde, Perry could end up seeing more time at the three, which might be a good thing: she led the team in rebounds with 179, 5.8 per game, but shot just .420, with only Morrissette and Thornton shooting worse in 100 or more attempts. Putting her against smaller opponents might cut down on the number of ill-advised shots she forced last year without cutting down her defensive contributions (in addition to the board work, she blocked 29 shots, third among Boilers). Bridget's efforts did result in a team-leading 118 FT attempts; she converted at a .771 rate, third on the team but first among qualifiers (2.5 FTs per game) and 10th in the conference.
It would be a significant surprise if McBryde does not win the starting spot vacated by Thornton. In just 620 minutes, she managed a team-leading 37 blocks, 136 boards (4.3 per game, third behind Perry and Keys), and shot a team-best .524 from the field. Her FT shooting wasn't great - just .671 in 85 attempts - but it wasn't bad, either. She might be too small to use at the five against bigger teams, but even so, her post play might justify it; there aren't a lot of bigs who can defend an agile 6'2" forward with a nose for the basket. (Raise your hand if you're glad that Aerial Powers is in the WNBA now. Everyone? Good, let's continue.)
Harris should get some immediate playing time, and the Boilers can use it - McBryde was basically their only reliable post player last season. Unless/until more help comes from the centers, and maybe even then, having another forward who can post up and score will help to ease the perimeter pressure on Morrissette and Murphy.
Both of last year's centers return, junior Bree Horrocks and sophomore Nora Kiesler. As you might expect on a three-guard team, neither player got a lot of minutes, with Horrocks averaging 15.1 and Kiesler just 11.0. Horrocks should continue to get about that amount of time, maybe more if she continues to improve inside (.500 FG% on 108 shots), but she'll likely be no more than a change-of-pace substitution against all but the biggest teams. Kiesler looked like the true freshman she was in 2015-16, shooting just .361 from the field, which is really not where you expect a 6'6" center to be. Struggles from there and the line (.619 on 21 shots) suggest that she could use another year of seasoning before she gets significant minutes, and with the talent on this team, there seems to be no need to rush her. In fact, it's a shame she didn't redshirt last year (although the lack of depth might have contributed to that) - as in the men's game, there aren't a lot of female centers ready for Big Tenteen basketball as true freshmen.
The other limiting factor will be the development of McBryde and Harris. If either or both earn more minutes, those will likely come from Kiesler and maybe Horrocks.
Last season, the biggest thing that separated the Boilers from the contenders in conference play was the weaknesses that last year's starters had (other than Wilson): Morrissette didn't have inside game, Keys didn't have an outside shot, Perry had poor shot selection, and Thornton was really a defensive specialist. It was almost like Versyp had 6-7 players for 5 spots and didn't have enough all-around players to make it work; when she chose poorly, the offense floundered. When the team put things together, though, they could run with anyone, upsetting Louisville at a neutral site, falling to Stanford in OT, beating Northwestern by 14 in Evanston, and losing by 1 to Michigan State in Indianapolis.
This year, the question will be point guard. If Murphy and Morrissette can cover the spot, or if one of the freshmen breaks out, Purdue could have a good offense; if Harris can have an immediate impact, the Boilers will go three deep at forward, and if Horrocks can continue to improve, it's possible that Versyp can run 8-9 players in and out at will. That kind of depth could pose a real problem for the conference favorites; it's probably asking too much for everyone to improve, but a 25-win season isn't out of the question.
Unreasonably Specific Predictions
- The Boilers won't lose a road game until late January, when they visit Michigan State. Opening at Maine is a tough challenge, but I don't think the Black Bears are at a point where they can pull off the upset.
- Purdue will drop a home game to a MAC school, though. Central Michigan and Eastern Michigan both come to Mackey in December, which is soon enough that the younger players might not yet be fully integrated into the offense. Versyp's teams do seem to drop the occasional head-scratcher from time to time, and Christmas break-ish is a likely time for it.
- Purdue will also retain the Barn Burner Trophy by winning their only game with Indiana this season (#thanksDelany). We can't have the Bucket, but we can keep everything else, right?
- Cooper and Harris will make All-Freshman teams; McBryde will be honorable mention All-Conference.
- The Boilers will go 24-6 in regular-season play, 11-5 in conference play, and easily make the field of 64; they'll get a surprisingly low NCAA seed but will sneak into the Sweet 16 anyway, where they'll be blown out by one of those 1-seed juggernauts. It'll be OK, because this will serve as an appetizer for 2017-18's main course.
Oh yes, NSD for basketball was yesterday as well, and like volleyball, WBB has four players signed to national letters of intent. Diagne is a JuCo transfer with three seasons of eligibility; the other players will be true freshmen. Lawson will become the first legacy in Purdue WBB history (her mom, Kay Tucker, played for the Boilers in 1990-93).
As you might imagine, with the Boilers traveling to Maine for this weekend's games, we don't have the individual bits that I was able to link for volleyball, so I'll just leave you with the list and a link to the full rundown at Purdue Sports.
- 5'10" G Léony Boudreau (Montréal, QC; Dawson College)
- 6'5" F/C Fatou Diagne (Thies, Senegal; Gulf Coast State College)
- 6'0" F Tamara Farquhar (Pierrefonds, QC; Dawson College)
- 6'2" F Dani Lawson (Cleveland, OH Hathaway Brown)
Photos courtesy of Purdue Athletics, taken by Charles Jischke