BLOOMINGTON – Indiana and Purdue seem to be two teams going in opposite directions.
The Boilermakers, winners of three in a row for the first time since November, are seemingly improving by the game, getting contributions from previously unheralded sources and finally putting together some strong performances on the road. They won for the second straight time on the road today, beating Indiana 74-62 at Assembly Hall. Coupled with last Saturday's win at Northwestern, Purdue has doubled its season win total away from Mackey Arena in the span of eight days.
"Of course you have confidence at home," said guard Eric Hunter Jr., who had 12 points, five rebounds and two steals. "But I think you get the most confidence when you get road wins. I think it'll be good for us down the stretch, because we've got a couple of tough games coming up. The rest of them are all pretty much tough. It just helps us prepare."
"We showed that we're a tough team," center Matt Haarms added. "We fought (the Hoosiers) from beginning to end. It's extremely important, we're going to keep getting tough matchups. Every game in the Big Ten is a tough one. Continue to play against tournament-caliber teams and we want to show that we belong in the tournament."
It's unclear right now whether Indiana is a NCAA Tournament-caliber team. The Hoosiers have lost four in a row since beating No. 11 Michigan State on Jan. 23, a win that looked for all the world like a program-changing victory for IU in the Archie Miller Era. Instead, all of Indiana's worst habits have returned in recent games. The Hoosiers turned the ball over 14 times today, leading to 17 Purdue points, and their big men, Joey Brunk and Trayce Jackson-Davis got mostly out-played inside. Senior captain Devonte Green, meanwhile, went 1 for 7 from the field, turned the ball over once and fouled Hunter Jr. as he attempted a 3-pointer at a crucial moment late in the second half. That's not a good enough performance from a veteran such as Green and with Armaan Franklin and Al Durham struggling, as well, Rob Phinisee is Indiana's only reliable guard right now.
What's really disturbing for the Hoosiers about the loss to the Boilers was that they played relatively hard for most of the game. Purdue didn't really out-hustle Indiana, it just played better. That speaks to a harsh reality about Indiana: the Hoosiers just aren't very good right now. They can play better, certainly, but do they have the personnel to do it consistently? It's looking more and more like the answer is no. Their NCAA Tournament hopes are fading and frustration is mounting.
After the defeat, Miller sounded a defiant note.
"It's not about the doom and gloom," the coach said. "Yeah, it stinks and you're really disappointed and it makes you sick, but the doom and the gloom's got to go away as soon as possible because the next one is coming right down the line. And that's a great opportunity as well against Iowa (on Thursday).
"And that's what's going to be the separator of our team and the rest of the teams in the (Big Ten) is who continues to find a way to just plug along, play through it and find a way."
As important as this game was in sussing out where both teams stand, it was overshadowed by the halftime spectacle. Former Hoosiers coach Bob Knight returned to Assembly Hall for the first time since 2000, greeting a gathering of several dozen former players at center court.
It was a cathartic moment for a fan base that has long wished Knight would simply acknowledge the program and the place he retains in it. As the chants of "BOB-BY, BOB-BY" rang through the arena, it was clear that he still figures prominently in the fans' view of the program and what it should aspire to be. Whatever one thinks of Knight – and he certainly has his detractors – his return at least means that a massive part of the history of Indiana basketball can be properly recognized. In addition, although it's almost impossible to know what was going through Knight's mind as he took the court, it was clear he was highly emotional at seeing his former players and hearing the packed arena cheering him again. Twenty years is a long time to hold a grudge and he seemingly took a huge step today toward letting go of those feelings.
It seems inappropriate that the day Knight returned the Hoosiers dropped their sixth straight game to their biggest rival for the first time since immediately before Knight became the coach. This has been one of the best rivalries in college basketball for years, but right now it isn't much of a contest. The Boilermakers have been the better team for going on half a decade now and it appears unlikely that will be changing any time soon. The truth is that the Boilers are the program that Indiana aspires to be: tough, physical, strong on defense and built around upperclassmen. The Hoosiers are trying to get there, but in Year 3 under Miller, it feels a long way off.