This season, espnW will take a journey across America, bringing you an in-depth look at 16 women's college basketball programs -- our Sweet 16. We'll begin the first week of the season and conclude just before the conference tournaments. We'll visit powerhouse schools and those off the beaten path, programs that are emerging and those that were there from the beginning. At the end of these 16 weeks, we hope you'll have a true flavor of Hoops Across America.
SWEETSER, Ind. -- Consult the official paperwork and you find that the yellow poplar has been the state tree of Indiana since 1931. Check with generation upon generation of those who grew up in the Hoosier State, on the other hand, and you may hear a different answer for that arcane bit of trivia. For years, quite possibly since the time John Wooden was playing for Purdue in 1931, people here have offered the same arboreal wisdom Boilermakers sophomore guard Courtney Moses heard growing up from her uncle.
The state tree of Indiana is planted in cement, hung on barns, stationed in parks and worshipped in gyms.
"You look and, literally, there's a basketball goal in almost every driveway," Moses said.
Standing in her driveway in Sweetser, a small town a little less than two hours east of the Purdue campus in West Lafayette, that's not an exaggeration. Basketball goals recede toward infinity, like something out of an M.C. Escher painting, if the Dutch artist had grown up on tales of Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird and Bobby Plump's last shot. Only the end of the street breaks the effect, pavement yielding not to an intersection, but to an empty farm field awaiting spring.
Welcome to Purdue women's basketball.
In many places where women's college basketball has a palpable hold on people, a program is the root of that passion. Success creates a culture that embraces the team and makes basketball its own. In this state where the game remains religion six days a week, Purdue is the product of a passion for basketball that predates all but the oldest poplars.
To appreciate why 8,773 people spent the evening in Mackey Arena for a recent home game against Minnesota at a time when the surrounding campus was otherwise deserted over holiday break, you need to visit Attica. It's a town of barely 3,000 residents about 30 miles outside of West Lafayette, where Boilermakers star Brittany Rayburn launched shots deep into the night after her dad installed lights for the basket on the family farm. To understand what makes Purdue different from other Big Ten programs, different from almost any prominent program in the nation, you need to spend time in Mishawaka, the blue-collar city that borders South Bend in the state's far north. It's where Boilermakers coach Sharon Versyp grew up.
Or pause in Sweetser, a dot on the map that just cracked four digits in population and which shares a high school with two nearby towns equally easy to drive through in the blink of an eye.
The Boilermakers' success, which includes a national championship in 1999 and 16 consecutive seasons ranked in the top 10 in attendance, grew out of places like Attica, Mishawaka, Sweetser and the 62 other cities and towns in Indiana that sent players to Purdue. Rayburn and Moses are the seventh and eighth winners of Indiana Miss Basketball, respectively, to play for Purdue since the honor (given to the state's best high school boys player since 1939) was extended to girls in 1976. The 1984 winner, Versyp was the first of that line.
Four of Purdue's top five players in career points are Indiana natives: MaChelle Joseph, Stephanie White (Miss Basketball 1995), Katie Gearlds (Miss Basketball 2003) and Katie Douglas. None of Tennessee's top five scorers are from the Volunteer State. Only one of UConn's top five, Nykesha Sales, is from Connecticut. It doesn't mean fans of those programs, like fans of Stanford or Notre Dame, come to love their players any less than fans here. It's just that fans here don't need introductions when a freshman class arrives.
"The history is so strong [at Purdue], especially when it comes to Miss Basketball," Moses said. "I mean, to have eight go to one school is pretty unreal. We don't talk about it, but there's that sense of Indiana pride among the players. Like when your name gets called for lineups -- the crowd when an Indiana player gets called, you can hear it."
The place to be
Some of those players grow up dreaming of Purdue. Rayburn used to make the trip to West Lafayette with her grandfather to watch Drew Brees throw passes for the Boilers. She wanted to follow in the footsteps of her sometimes babysitter, White, whose more familiar credentials include 2,182 career points in black and gold and a championship ring from that 1999 season. But Purdue has become a destination for even those girls who, like Moses, now sheepishly admit to wearing Indiana University's cream and crimson to their first day of kindergarten.
In women's basketball, this is the state's program.
The idea of that is what attracted Versyp, the player, at a time when the fledging program had little history. From the time she was in sixth grade, sitting on the couch with her dad and listening to the announcers on television talk about Warsaw's Judi Warren winning the state's first Miss Basketball, she wanted to do the same. Purdue became the place to keep it going.
"I could have gone anywhere in the country to play, but I think it was building the relationships and playing for your state," Versyp said. "That meant a lot to me. It was kind of my foundation, how I was raised a little bit."
The year before she arrived, Purdue went 5-23, the eighth non-winning season in nine tries. She departed in 1988 as one of the captains of a 21-win WNIT finalist. The following season, a program that had previously drawn in the hundreds per game averaged 2,633 fans per contest and reached the Sweet 16. Purdue has averaged at least 7,000 per game for the past 15 seasons.
Almost three decades later, and six seasons after she returned as coach in 2006, plenty of things beyond the won-loss record look very different, right down to the rows of leather recliners in the team's new private film room or the aquatic treadmill in the super-sized training room in the bowels of Mackey. Such luxuries are a far cry from the days of a VCR on a cart or a cold bath.
What hasn't changed, except in broadening out to further embrace stars of both genders, is the hold basketball has on the state.
A grassroots dedication to hoops
As much support as the Boilermakers receive at home, it is usually possible to secure a seat in Mackey, with its capacity of more than 14,000. That wasn't always the case at Oak Hill High School when Moses played. Located about five minutes outside Sweetser, Oak Hill serves that town, along with Swayzee and Converse. It is still only big enough to earn 2A classification, the second-smallest for high schools in the state. But when Moses was in the midst of leading the school to back-to-back state championship games as a sophomore and junior and leading the state in scoring as a senior, the gym was Sweetser's version of a trendy club in a major metropolis.
"Oak Hill was standing room only," Versyp recalled of her recruiting trips. "There's really nothing else to do; they love their girls' basketball. That's kind of the sport there. So when you go in there, it's standing-room only. That's what basketball is all about. It's just phenomenal ... I think the small communities are the ones that really latch on."
These days signs on either side of town welcome you to the home of the 2010 Miss Basketball, not a bad accomplishment for someone who still has time before she needs to declare a major. At a restaurant just across the line in neighboring Marion, a replica of her Indiana All-Stars jersey (bearing the revered No. 1 that's reserved for Mr. and Miss Basketball) hangs just above a framed photo of her in the establishment as a grade schooler -- and just down the wall from similar memorabilia celebrating Marion native and NBA star Zach Randolph.
"Once a sports team is doing well, you've got a whole entire community [where] it's the talk of the town everywhere, posters everywhere, signs about it," Moses said. "I feel like going away to college and getting into the hustle and bustle of city life, kind of, you learn to appreciate home a lot more, especially growing up in the country."
When Moses taped her thumb to her hand growing up to correct a flaw in her shooting mechanics or shoveled snow off the driveway to clear space to shoot, the notion of playing college basketball was only on the periphery of her vision. Staring her in the face was the mirror she hung in her closet with "2010 Miss Basketball?" etched above it, one more bit of encouragement to shake off any bleary-eyed morning malaise. When she showed up early for soccer practice to work on basketball ballhandling drills in the parking lot, it wasn't because she dreamed of being the next great Purdue player. She dreamed of being the next great player from Indiana.
An embarrassment of riches
On a national scale, Purdue and Notre Dame fight for the same territory among the sport's elite, with the Fighting Irish holding the advantage at the moment. But Notre Dame always has been a school in Indiana more than a school of Indiana, something the private school with an international profile might consider a compliment. The Irish's current success had a lot to do with keeping South Bend native Skylar Diggins home, but she's just the 19th player from the state to play for the Fighting Irish.
That's more than any other state provided the program, but it's barely a fifth of the 92 players from Indiana who played for Purdue, more than the other 49 states combined.
The Miss Basketball winners are the marquee names, but even on the current team, there's also sophomore defensive stopper Dee Dee Williams from Indianapolis, senior post Alex Guyton from Bloomington and a fresh crop of in-state reinforcements in freshman Liza Clemons and Torrie Thornton. All four, along with Moses and Rayburn, were Indiana All-Stars in high school.
"When you have such a great academic institution and great fan support and such a great, long tradition here of women's basketball, you always want to get the best kids from Indiana," Versyp said. "You have tough competition with Notre Dame and everyone nationally -- you're going after the top kids. But there's enough of the top kids that there's enough to go around. What I've always tried to sell is we have everything here right in front of you. ...
"You go somewhere else, people are going to be excited you're there, but it's not going to have that same feeling as you're from Indiana and you stayed home and the people appreciate it so much more."
A program that shares a state ranked just 15th in population that has two other major Division I programs, including one with a championship history of its own, shouldn't be so successful with a foundation of homegrown talent. But as the old saying around here goes, corn, soybeans and high school basketball are abundant in Indiana.
"It was just a love for it," Rayburn said. "You could do it by yourself, get away from everything else in life. When high school came around, it was still my stress reliever, still is today. I keep telling myself I don't know what I would do without it. If you get mad, you just go play basketball, go shoot, go run it off. That's always the biggest thing for me, just go play in my dirt-road backyard."
For Rayburn, it was the basket on the farm. For Moses, it was the driveway hoop -- her own or any of the others lined up along the streets of Sweetser. For other Boilermakers, past, present and future, it's a city park or an empty gym in Indianapolis or Fort Wayne.
And as long as the unofficial state tree flourishes, a program whose roots extend from the Ohio River to Lake Michigan will bloom each winter.