BLOOMINGTON – Is this the night? Will Indiana finally end four years of futility against its biggest rival or will Purdue come into Assembly Hall and send Hoosiers coach Archie Miller to 0-6 against the Boilermakers?
We'll know the answers to those questions in just a few hours, but there is no doubt that tonight will be one of the most interesting and likely one of the most intense iterations of this rivalry in recent years. Though Purdue has had the upper hand for half a decade now, the teams come in tonight in very similar positions at this point in their development. Both teams are led by young players and are in large part inexperienced, but both have the talent to make some noise in the Big Ten. They're both built around ultra-talented, rugged big men, who will get a chance to face off with one another tonight, and both squads are learning how to win as the season goes on. This is a measuring stick game for both teams: where do they stand in the conference race at this point and are they capable of beating another team that's in the top half of the league. To this point, the only victory for either team over an opponent in the top portion of the conference is Purdue's win against No. 21 Ohio State, which was missing its top scorer that night. We don't really know how good either of these teams can be yet, but we'll get an indication tonight.
Of course, this will also be a unique chapter in this series because of the atmosphere. Instead of Assembly Hall being packed with students just returned from winter break, creating what likely would have been one of the loudest crowds of the season, the arena will be largely empty tonight. Only a handful of player and coach family and friends will be allowed in because of COVID-19 protocols, so the game will be nearly silent compared to a normal IU-Purdue matchup. Indiana won't have the benefit of 17,000 fans roaring after every Hoosiers basket, but this won't only affect IU. Purdue – and former Boilermaker Matt Haarms especially in recent years – has come to feed off the animosity the IU crowds bring when the Boilers play in Assembly Hall. Sasha Stefanovic noted that having 17,000 people boo you is a "pretty cool" experience. The Boilermakers won't have that tonight, either. Both teams will have to find their own energy and the one that does will have a significant leg up.
Of course, the marquee matchup in this game will be down low. Indiana's Trayce Jackson-Davis and Purdue's Trevion Williams are both coming off terrific performances – Jackson-Davis had three double-doubles last week and Williams scored 26 points against Michigan State – and they can each make their case for Big Ten Player of the Year tonight, assuming Luka Garza hasn't already locked it up. Purdue will likely send a double-team at Jackson-Davis to try to keep Williams out of foul trouble, while the 2019 Indiana Mr. Basketball will go right at his Boilermaker counterpart's chest and try to get him off the court. This is best on best and it could be extremely entertaining. The bigger problem for Indiana is who will defend Williams when Jackson-Davis needs a rest. Race Thompson is the obvious candidate, but he's undersized against Purdue's talented big man. Can he hold up long enough to keep Jackson-Davis fresh for the end of the game?
The good news for Indiana is that, as I type this, guard Armaan Franklin is out on the floor warming up and seems on track to play. Franklin has missed the last two games with an ankle injury and he's the Hoosiers' second-leading scorer and best 3-point shooter. Though Al Durham, Rob Phinisee, Jerome Hunter and Anthony Leal have stepped up in his absence, that's a difficult player to lose for a team that already struggles offensively. Franklin's return, even if for only 15-20 minutes, should make Indiana's offense more dynamic and give the Hoosiers one more weapon on the outside that Purdue has to respect.
In the end, this game could come down to which team is more physical and plays with more energy. We'll learn a lot about both teams tonight as we get the first glimpse of the future of this rivalry. Welcome to Indiana basketball.