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The Rivalry: Will It Ever Get Back to Greatness?

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Gene vs. Bobby was epic, but The Rivalry has fallen on hard times of late.

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Indiana Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Yeah, North Carolina-Duke bothers me.

It is the best and most balanced rivalry in college basketball, but it has rarely been recognized as that here in Indiana. Here, it will always be Indiana-Purdue. For a long time our own rivalry had much of the national cachet of North Carolina-Duke, right up to Duke having not won a national championship until the early 90s. During the Gene Keady vs. Bobby Knight era Purdue and Indiana ran the Big Ten. The twice yearly meetings were like championship bouts, and split almost evenly as Gene finished with a slim 20-19 edge over Knight from 1981-2000.

Carolina-Duke bothers me because I want Indiana-Purdue to matter nationally again.

Yeah, we have had moments. We have baptized the masses in Bloomington:

We have not been playin’:

And we have been teased with just the tip of greatness coming back:

These have been mere blips, however, because while everyone in the state remembers them, they have barely registered nationally.

This weekend there are rumors that due to “Basketball Day in Indiana” both Gene and Bobby will return to Assembly Hall as part of the centerpiece of a day of basketball in the state. My own Memorial Gym will be hosting four games televised on Fox Sports Indiana to showcase the high school side (including Purdue target Caleb Furst). You also have the girls basketball sectional finals going on around the state, a Pacers game Saturday night, and the centerpiece of Purdue at Indiana. It would make sense that if Knight were to make his long-awaited return to Assembly Hall it would be with his nemesis Gene Keady right there. The best days of the Rivalry exist mostly in memory, however. We have a pair of old men in their 80s as talismans of a bygone era.

From the 1980-81 season (Gene Keady’s first) to the 1999-2000 season (Bob Knight’s last) there were 35 meetings where either Purdue or Indiana was ranked in the top 25. In 10 of those meetings both teams were ranked, with 1987 being the height of it. Purdue and Indiana were tied for 4th in the polls before Indiana’s 88-77 win in Bloomington, while #6 Purdue beat #3 Indiana 75-64 in West Lafayette a few weeks later. The teams split season series, tied on aggregate, and split the Big Ten title. Indiana, of course, went on to win the NCAA Tournament while Purdue stumbled and lost by 19 in the second round to Florida. In 11 of those 20 seasons either Purdue or Indiana won at least a share of the conference.

It is hard to believe it has been 20 seasons since the Gene vs. Bobby era has ended, and it really has not been the same since. Purdue has had stability in transitioning from Gene to Matt Painter, but Indiana has been all over the map. They have jumped from Mike Davis (their best coach in the era and one that got them to a National title game), to Kelvin Sampson (who torpedoed the program with a scandal that wouldn’t be a scandal under today’s rules), to Dan Dakich (the definition of having a team quit on him), to Tom Crean (I miss that goofy bastard) to Archie Miller. Should Purdue win tomorrow the Miller era could begin facing some serious questions.

There is no question that Indiana, as a program, has the more significant history nationally, but it is hard to stay on top. It is harder still to stay on top without any consistency, and when coaches are run out of town because they are not Knight within 4-5 years each successive firing only further weakens the program.

In the intervening 20 years Purdue and Indiana have played 32 times (thanks a lot, unbalanced Big Ten). In 21 of those games at least one of the teams was ranked, but more often when Purdue has been up Indiana has been down and vice versa. Only twice have both teams been ranked at game time. The first was in the lone 2008 meeting, when the Sampson scandal was a day or two from exploding. Indiana won 77-68 in Bloomington, later costing Purdue the Big Ten title. Three days later Sampson was fired and Indiana imploded.

The second dual ranked meeting was in 2016, when #22 Indiana beat #17 Purdue 77-73 in Bloomington. Indiana eventually won the Big Ten and reached the Sweet 16, but has not been back to the tournament since. The evidence of one team being up and the other being down is more pronounced in the 19 games where only one was ranked. In 14 of those games the ranked team has won.

In 2002, when Indiana reached the national title game Purdue didn’t even make the NCAA Tournament. When Purdue was running wild with the Baby Boilers Indiana was finishing last in the conference. The Movement got Indiana to a No. 1 overall ranking, but Purdue was missing the tournament then. The last three seasons Purdue has reached the second weekend of March and won two Big Ten titles, but in that time you couldn’t spell “Indiana Basketball” without “N-I-T”.

This year presents a unique opportunity where both teams are relatively equal, but not on the “We run the Big Ten and could meet in the final weekend of March” level like Duke and North Carolina. In the past 20 years these even matchups have often been one team passing the other on different elevators with one going up and the other going down. Can we say that is happening this year?

More importantly, will we ever get back to those days where this game had major stakes? Last year looked like it was close, but those elevators were doing the rare in-season passing. Indiana was hot and ranked in the top 25 in the first meeting, but by the time of the second one they were mired in a deep losing streak and Purdue was on its way to winning the Big Ten.

To get back to that level we all want there needs to be stability. Painter is going to be in West Lafayette for as long as he wants with the way things look now, and even with a step back this year I remain confident in the overall direction of the program. After three years, however, there are already grumblings about Archie. If Indiana misses the NCAA this year for the fourth straight season (a first since the tournament expanded in 1985) those grumblings will probably become full-fledged shouts.

I have always maintained that Indiana and Purdue have been equal programs aside from their five banners (and yes, that is an enormous caveat). In the last 20 years that is definitely true. They are an even 16-16 against each other, while each has three Big Ten titles. Purdue has 12 NCAA appearances to Indiana’s 10, Purdue has five Sweet 16s to Indiana’s four, and each has one trip beyond the Sweet 16. It hasn’t been Gene vs. Bobby though, which is what both sides would love again and why Assembly Hall would erupt tomorrow if both showed up.

BONUS CLIP:

Because the game does, occasionally, still decide a championship:

It is pretty fun making it rain championship confetti on your rival’s heads.