I thought this was the year for a close game, if not necessarily an important one. Both teams came in mired in identical mediocrity. Surely it would be a battle, though probably not a pretty one.
Instead, Purdue's focused and determined Boilermakers drilled the mentally checked-out Indiana Hoosiers 82-64 on Saturday in front of a very appreciative Mackey Arena crowd. It was a complete flip from a year ago, when IU did all the spanking and Purdue wandered around dazed and confused.
Unfortunately, that's how the series has been for almost a decade. One team has dominated, the other has demurred. These are not the games upon which legends are born.
“I'm not from Indiana but these guys allowed me to see how passionate this rivalry was,” Purdue guard Sterling Carter said. “I was glad to be here to help them get the victory.”
Passion was one-sided, just as it's been for seemingly forever now. Those of us old enough to remember a time long ago and far away before they invented Twitter, the epic Bob Knight-led Hoosiers battled year after year with the Gene Keady-led Boilermakers. The winner often had Big Ten bragging rights, if not a No.1 NCAA Tournament seed.
But this rivalry has fizzled since the old guard left.
Since Purdue coach Matt Painter took over in the 2005-06 season, the teams have met 15 times. It's close in terms of wins over that period: Indiana has won eight, Purdue seven. But it has not been memorable. Of those 15 games, only one has finished with a one-basket difference: Purdue's 78-75 win in 2009-10. Twelve games have been decided by 11 or more points.
“This is a big rivalry for us and to get it in the fashion we did today, why not celebrate?” Purdue senior guard Terone Johnson said.
Purdue and IU take turns blowing each other out and celebrating, I'll give you that. Purdue won five straight, and then Indiana won four straight before Saturday's Purdue win.
The passion remains for the fans. You could say the rabid nature of the Mackey Arena crowd was due to looking for something to grasp as a “big” game in a barely above .500 season. This is the latest, incidentally, that both teams have entered this game below .500 in the Big Ten since 1966. But there's no question the crowd was as loud as the glory days.
For a half, it even threatened to be a great rivalry game. Purdue jumped on top early. IU, thanks to Yogi Ferrell, took that lead away. The half ended in furious fashion, with Purdue's Basil Smotherman tipping back in his missed free throw after a tip by teammate Errick Peck. The Boilers went to halftime up 38-33.
Less than five minutes into the second half, Purdue led by 18 points.
“The second half, we didn't take the hit and we didn't fight back like we should have,” Indiana's Austin Etherington said, “and it got to where it was.”
Nothing describes this rivalry of late quite as accurately as one team lacking the will or ability to fight back.
Purdue's heroes were many, starting with Carter, who scored 10 of Purdue's points in its 14-1 start to the second half, and finished with a career-best 19. Terone Johnson still can't make a free throw, but he hit half of his 12 field goals and scored 14. Ronnie Johnson scored 16. Fort Wayne's Bryson Scott dished out four assists and played decent defense on Ferrell in relief of Carter.
The Hoosiers, meanwhile, looked in the second half like a team that was still mentally scarred from blowing their home game against Penn State last week.
IU coach Tom Crean insinuated that Purdue's shooting (48 percent from the field, 55 percent from three-point territory and 75 percent at the line) was the aberration that made the difference. There might be some truth there.
But he also needs to acknowledge that his team has lost its edge. Indiana and Purdue both entered this game in a funk. One team fought out of it, at least for 40 minutes.
Crean was asked what he might do to help his players perform better down the stretch of games.
“I'm not big on bringing in a team of sports psychologists,” Crean said. “You get your strengths from your teammates. You have to shut out the negativity and doubt as much as you can, and you can't let them creep in when game's going on.”
Last season, Purdue had the doubts and negativity, and losses of 37 and 28 points to Indiana. The tables were turned this year. Purdue fans were thrilled.
For those of us wanting this rivalry to return to the epic importance and drama of years past, the long wait continues.