When most casual observers think of women's basketball, they think Connecticut and Tennessee, which share nine national championships. Duke has recently garnered a lot of attention, partly because it has one of the country's best players.
Toiling in relative obscurity is Purdue, which this weekend makes its fourth trip to the round of 16 in the last six years. The Boilermakers, who will play Notre Dame in Sunday's East Region semifinal in Dayton, Ohio, have been one of the most successful Division I programs the past 10 years, averaging 25 wins per season. They have been ranked in the Associated Press top 25 rankings for 93 straight weeks and in the top 10 for 15 of 19 weeks this season.
"I think our program is among the elite," Purdue junior forward Shereka Wright said. "Sometimes we might not get the respect as some of those other programs because of what they have accomplished, but I think we're on the verge of getting there. I think we should be up there with the best of them. It's all about respect. Purdue is still on the verge of earning respect, and we still have to get some people's attention about this program."
Purdue has dominated its conference, winning seven of the last 10 Big Ten championships, including four Big Ten tournament titles -- the most of any conference school.
The Boilermakers' biggest achievements have come in the NCAA tournament. Purdue has appeared in the national championship game twice, winning a title in 1999. In addition, the Boilermakers have made three trips to the Final Four and five trips to the round of eight. This is their eighth appearance in the round of 16.
This success has come amidst some instability in the program. In 1999, Kristy Curry became Purdue's fourth coach in five years. Curry replaced current Florida coach Carolyn Peck, who stayed two seasons and won a national championship before leaving for the WNBA. ESPN commentator and Indiana Fever Coach Nel Fortner preceded Peck. Fortner coached the Boilermakers for one season, then left to become the Olympic team coach.
Lin Dunn, who took Purdue to its first Final Four in 1994, generally is credited with putting the Boilermakers on a successful path. Dunn won 20 or more games in eight of her nine seasons before being fired in 1996.
It is unusual for a program to sustain such a high level of excellence with so many coaching changes. Yet Purdue hasn't had a dropoff. According to Curry, who has won 80 percent of her games since becoming the coach four years ago, the key is bringing in talented players.
"The lifeblood of any program is recruiting," Curry said. "We feel like year in and year out we are competing for the best and every once in a while we'll be able to get one or two of those [blue chip recruits] and can stay where we're at and keep getting better."
Wright, one of Curry's first recruits, is one such player who has kept Purdue near the top. She was the Big Ten tournament's most outstanding player this year and has been a Naismith Award finalist two years in a row. Junior point guard Erika Valek -- like Wright, a Texas native -- is another top player Curry got in her first recruiting class. Valek ranked second in steals and third in assists in the Big Ten this season.
Curry continues to recruit some of the best players in the country. She signed Indiana Miss Basketball Katie Gearlds for next season along with two other highly regarded high school seniors, Indi Johnson of California and Erin Lawless of Illinois.
"I learned from [former Louisiana Tech coach Leon] Barmore," said Curry, who spent three seasons as Barmore's assistant. "One thing he kept telling me throughout my time at Louisiana Tech, 'It's hard to get there. It's even harder to maintain it.' I understand what that means a little bit more now."
Purdue's players and coaches say they believe that as long as they continue to do well, the recognition they feel they deserve will come.
"Each year that this program goes on, the position is going to build and the respect will build," senior center Mary Jo Noon said. "It will take time. It will take a lot of time. But in the long run, this program will be one of the great teams, one of the great places to play in the United States. It just takes time."