Three years ago, while coaching at Southwest Missouri State,
Cheryl Burnett got an itch. She got it from a 2001 NCAA Final Four
loss to Purdue.

Candace Mui
Michigan junior Tabitha Pool has struggled from beyond the arc in recent games.(SHUBRA OHRI/Daily)

It has bothered her ever since.

Tonight, Burnett, now coaching Michigan, finally has a chance to
scratch that lingering itch.

A win against the fifth-ranked Boilermakers at Crisler Arena
wouldn’t be about revenge.

It would be a step in getting Michigan to buy into what
Southwest Missouri State bought into during Burnett’s initial
years as head coach of that program.

It took Burnett two seasons to turn around Southwest Missouri
State. The Bears went from eighth in the Missouri Valley conference
to first.

A major reason for the improvement was getting the team to
believe in a system — one that emphasizes defense and
teamwork.

“Their hard work will pay off,” former Southwest
Missouri State player and Michigan associate head coach Karen
Rapier said. “It hasn’t totally paid off for us yet,
but we have to keep the faith that it will pay off at some point in
time.”

For Burnett, there may not be a more opportune time than
tonight.

Purdue (7-1 Big Ten, 17-2 overall) boasts two of the
nation’s best players in forward Shereka Wright and point
guard Erika Valek. Both are All-American candidates. And both were
a part of the 2001 team that knocked Burnett and Southwest Missouri
State out of the NCAA Final Four.

“She was just a tremendous basketball player
(then),” said Burnett about Wright in the Final Four.
“So I can’t imagine what she’s like
now.”

Some may think that the Wolverines (3-6, 10-12) are progressing
too slowly this season. But, the Wolverines did recently
experience, according to Rapier, a “major
breakthrough.”

During last Sunday’s loss at Illinois, Michigan watched
its best player, center Jennifer Smith, get even better.

The senior shrugged off double teams and physical play —
obstacles for her earlier in the season — to score 31 points
and grab seven rebounds. It was a major step in Smith’s
development as a leader.

Against Purdue, Smith needs to do what she has done so well this
season — play effectively in the post.

The Boilermakers’ two best post players, Lindsey Hicks and
Emily Heikes, have not been consistent this season.

“Obviously we have (had) some trouble with posts, much to
my dislike,” Purdue coach Kristy Curry said. “Lindsey
and Emily have got to come to play. I expect more than what they
are giving. It will be interesting because I love Jennifer Smith. I
have always thought she was one of the best players in our league
and in the country.”

But the Wolverines will need more than just Smith to beat
Purdue. The Boilermakers have six players who average more than
seven points per game. Michigan has just three — Smith,
Tabitha Pool and Stephanie Gandy.

Recent challengers have zoned-up against Smith in the post,
realizing that Pool and Gandy have been struggling from three point
range, shooting a combined 22 percent in the past five games.

But Purdue plays mostly a man-to-man defense. Its style caters
to Michigan’s dump-in offense geared around Smith, the Big
Ten’s leading scorer with 21.5 points per-game.

A win against the Big Ten’s second best team tonight may
brighten Michigan’s dim hope of reaching the post season.

It would also help Burnett establish a future to forget the
past.

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