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The Rivalry at a Crossroads

Purdue is trending up, while Indiana is treading water. Still.

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Indiana Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

In 2013 Indiana swept Purdue easily. The Hoosiers spent much of that season ranked No. 1 in the country and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They won the Big Ten with a 14-4 record, had two players picked in the top 4 of the NBA Draft, and beat Purdue 83-55 in Bloomington and 97-60 in West Lafayette. The victory in West Lafayette was the worst defeat Purdue has ever suffered in Mackey Arena, and would have been worse if AJ Hammons had not gone for 30 points.

Purdue, meanwhile, was in disarray. The Boilers would finish the year at 16-18. There was never any consistency after a season opening home loss to Bucknell. Purdue would spiral into a second straight losing season the next year, then a rash of transfers (Ronnie Johnson, Anthony Johnson, Donnie Hale, and the medical retirement of Jay Simpson) seemed to show a brewing issue in the locker room. The win in Bloomington in 2013 was a fourth straight for Indiana, and after the 2013-14 season it appeared as if all momentum from the Baby Boilers run was gone. Matt Painter was facing some questions that were going to get louder with another down year in 2014-15.

It was a dark time.

The last eight seasons have seen a stunning reversal in the rivalry. Purdue has now won 11 of the last 12, eight straight, and an amazing five in a row in Bloomington. I never thought I would see Purdue win five consecutive games in Assembly Hall, especially when we had not won as many as three consecutive since the early 70s when the building first opened. On a national scale, Purdue has made five consecutive NCAA Tournaments, three Sweet 16s, won two Big Ten titles, and was within half a second of a Final Four. Indiana, meanwhile, did win the Big Ten in 2017, but has not returned to the NCAA Tournament since (to be fair, they probably slide in last season if not for COVID).

In any rivalry there are ebbs and flows. The heyday of both teams battling for Big Ten titles has been gone for a while. Only once this century have both teams met with major title implications on the line was in 2008, when Indiana beat Purdue in Kelvin Sampson’s final game, eventually denying us the Big Ten title. For most of the past 20 years when one side has been up, the other has been down. As it stands now, Indiana seems to be treading water and has been for five seasons, while Purdue has positive momentum towards another great run starting next year.

Purdue’s current run has been the product of consistency and patience with coaches. Since 1981 Purdue has had two coaches: Gene Keady and Matt Painter. The transition from Keady to Painter looks genius in hindsight. Through 16 seasons Painter has had his dip in 2013 and 2014 and a slight dip last year that he seems to be recovering from already. Only Tom Izzo has more current longevity in the Big Ten. Our patience in 2013 and 2014 has paid off, too, as two Big Ten titles in three years and our current NCAA run has earned a lot of goodwill.

We have also seen Painter grow as a coach. For example: he used to struggle drawing up out of bounds plays under the basket. Now we’re lethal there, culminating in the endgame against Michigan State where Painter worked Izzo’s defense like a speedbag. He has also evolved to make each team work to its strengths. We have seen the post be a force for years now with the Hammons-Haas-Haarms-Williams lineage. We have seen him ride three-point shooters for games, rely on the experience of a seasoned team like the 2018 team, and rely on a player just becoming a lone assassin like Carsen Edwards in 2019. Personally, I think his job in the middle of the 2018-19 season simply masterful. He took a 6-5 team that looked like it would miss the NCAA Tournament to a Big Ten title and the brink of a Final Four.

We’re seeing it again this year, especially in the last 7 days. Purdue looked like toast at halftime against Michigan State. Since then we have ridden the hot hand (Trevion Williams personally outscoring the Spartans in the second half) and gotten great chemistry and teamwork in last night’s win. Just look at the box score from last night. Trevion Williams had his usual 22 and 10, but there were contributions all over. Brandon Newman and Eric Hunter Jr. got into double figures, with Newman playing the closer at the free throw line. Jaden Ivey showed why he is going to be a very good player in the long run with 13 off the bench. Mason Gillis continued to be an excellent Little Things guy and a rich man’s Grady Eifert. Even Ethan Morton, who had not scored since the Valparaiso game on December 4th and had taken one shot total in the last five games, hit a gigantic corner three that doubled Purdue’s lead with 11:09 left. The Hoosiers did not get within a possession the rest of the way.

But what about Indiana? Consistency and continuity have not been their hallmarks this century. Bob Knight was fired in 2000, but they have since had Mike Davis (a decent coach that did get them to the NCAA title game), Kelvin Sampson (fired for NCAA violations that would not be violations today), a radio host, an excellent recruiter in Tom Crean that struggled on the court, and Archie Miller. They have not had the continuity to build like Painter had. Crean’s job, taking over a crater of a program to No. 1, was impressive. Just one year after winning a Big Ten title he was fired though, because the demands in Bloomington are high. Even worse, Archie never looks happy at all and tries to play the Knight routine with the sideline antics without the success.

Even their in-game consistency is maddening. After Purdue pushed the lead to 12 and looked like it would run away with the game Indiana turned up its defensive pressure late in the first half. It worked. Purdue had a bad five minute stretch and Indiana got back in the game. It is the kind of pressure Clemson used the entire game with great success back in November. Strangely, Indiana just… stopped doing it. When they did that, Purdue thrived.

Eventually, the streak will end. Indiana will eventually beat Purdue again. They are a historically strong program that is passionate about the game. They will always have excellent talent and eventually they will settle on a coach that can stay and build with it. They are never down for long and, really, they are not that far off at the moment. They are a lot like Purdue’s team a year ago in that they can look really good for stretches and really bad for stretches. Still, they are at a crossroads while Purdue is trending upward, and if they continue the cycle of “This guy didn’t get a Final Four in x amount of time he needs to be gone” it will not get any better.