Saturday night it will feel right, at least. 14,000 full-throated Purdue fans will be screaming for an addendum of "Below .500 in the Big Ten" to be added to the now infamous "We're Back" shirt that Indiana is selling. We Purdue fans are so tired of hearing about that, The Movement, and everything else related to the win over Kentucky that we're finally glad we have a chance to personally do something about it. Think of this as an early sportsbook review for Saturday.
Conversely, Indiana fans will take great perverse pleasure in winning at Mackey Arena for the first time in over half a decade if the Hoosiers prevail on Saturday. They have tolerated years of snide Purdue remarks (of which I have doled out more than my faire share). Winning at Mackey and possible sweep would be a great day for them, mostly because they would have come through the Wilderness of the Sampson wreckage, dodged a bullet when Robbie Hummel's knee buckled, preventing at least one Final Four and a possible National title for our Boilermakers, and come out on the other side back on top.
As great as the atmosphere will be, however, The Rivalry that divides this state isn't totally back yet. That's because the stakes still only matter for those in state. Purdue is a middling 5-4 in the Big Ten and has so far been the definition of a schizophrenic bubble team. Their invincibility at home was shattered by Wisconsin and Michigan in games where Purdue really beat themselves with slow starts and defensive breakdowns.
Indiana, on the other hand, comes in under .500 in the Big Ten despite two of the signature wins of the 2011-12 college basketball season. Despite proclamations of the Big Ten title being theirs in December by some fans, Indiana is 5-6 and will not win the title this year. A loss to Purdue would put them at 5-7 and slipping inexplicably towards the bubble despite being as high as No. 7 in the polls a few weeks ago.
You may think I am crazy, but if Indiana leaves West Lafayette at 5-7 in the Big Ten they still must travel to Minnesota (trying to get into the dance themselves and already with a win in Bloomington), Iowa (who shot better than 62% on Sunday against IU, but forgot to play defense), as well as hosting Michigan State and an Illinois team that could just as easily win in Bloomington as lose at home to Penn State. If Indiana reaches 5-7 after Saturday suddenly an 8-10 record in the Big Ten is possible, and no team deserves to go to the NCAA Tournament with a losing record in its own conference. Period.
This has long been a pet peeve of mine, because the teams that do get in with a losing record in conference are buoyed by the RPI, strength of schedule, and other factors, but that doesn't change my belief. Even if Purdue was in Indiana's situation with wins over Kentucky, Notre Dame, and Ohio State, I still would not feel worthy of the NCAAs if we finished below .500 in the Big Ten. I feel so strongly about this that I think there should be an NCAA rule about it. It would only affect 1 or 2 teams per year if that, and the NCAA wouldn't exactly be denying true title contenders here. Everyone has a second chance anyway with the conference tournaments, so if you finish at 8-10 in the Big Ten the Big Ten Tournament becomes that much more important for you. If you don't want to bitch then win your way in that way.
Getting back to my original point though, this rivalry is not truly back because it has little to no effect on the Big Ten race. Indiana is already out, and Purdue won't win unless it miraculously rolls through the final games 9-0 and gets someone else to beat Ohio State. Both teams are probably going to scrape into the tournament and be out by the end of the first weekend. Outside of the borders of the state, no one cares. Hell the game is on Big Ten Network instead of it rightful CBS afternoon spot.
It is, however, on its way back because Indiana has improved greatly from the past few years. Purdue has taken a step back this season, but a pair of solid recruiting classes have things looking forward in West Lafayette. This rivalry is at its best when both teams are ranked and battling for the Big Ten title. That's what raised it so high in the first place. You have the two schools with the most regular season conference titles (42 combined) and a string of All-Americans, NBA draft picks, and all-Big Ten selections. This is the rivalry that once had a coach throw a damn chair across the floor for crying out loud! I was raised on that intensity, where the teams were so dead even that there was enough mutual respect to expect a split (each team wins at home) and the real winner that year we decided by the Big Ten race.
The only major difference between the two schools are those five National championships that Indiana has compared none for Purdue. In that regard, Purdue has come up agonizingly short due to injury, bad luck, and mere choking time and again. 1988 was a choke against Kansas State. The 1969 title game was affected by injury. The 1994 Elite 8 game was affected by injury. 2010 was definitely an injury situation while 2011 was a rare combo of injury and a choke. Purdue's best ever teams could definitely hang with, and even beat Indiana's best, but the Hoosiers have gotten it done on a national stage and Purdue has not. Until Purdue does get it done it will always be the one black mark we have in this rivalry.
The important thing is that in almost all of those years, Indiana vs. Purdue meant something outside the borders of this state. You have one of the most historic programs in college basketball against possibly the best program to have never won a National title. That very gap adds a certain fuel to the fire that makes it very Red Sox vs.Yankees pre-2004, and it will only get better if/when Purdue wins a title or two. Just imagine how things would be Saturday had Hummel stayed healthy and Purdue was coming off of two Final Fours and at least one title.
So enjoy Saturday night. It will look like things are finally back after a long hiatus that saw both programs hit an all-time nadir, but it will pale in comparison for what could be to come if both teams keep rising.