BLOOMINGTON – This is a big one.
Not only is this the 210th meeting between two historically successful programs, the latest iteration of one of the best rivalries in college basketball, played in an arena that delights in treating its visitors from the north with contempt, it is a game that both teams desperately need to win. That hasn't often been the case in recent years as Indiana has struggled to reach the NIT and Purdue has been so good that no single game could be counted as a must-win.
This year, both teams are sitting on the bubble as we get deeper into February and although they would each likely be on the right side of it if the season ended today, there is still plenty of basketball to be played and victories are at a premium. Indiana probably has more at stake, coming off three consecutive losses, two of which (defeats against Penn State and Ohio State on the road last week) saw the Hoosiers play without the trademark physicality and paint dominance that have been their keys to success this season. They gave away a game at home to Maryland on Jan. 26 and can't afford any more losses at Assembly Hall, especially when they struggle so mightily on the road.
Purdue, meanwhile, is only 13-10 and is coming off back-to-back wins for the first time since Jan. 2. The Boilermakers have been inconsistent all season, playing like national title contenders at home and like a bottom-of-the-barrel team on the road. They are 10-2 at Mackey Arena and only 3-8 in road and neutral games. If the season ended today, they would likely be one of the last few teams in the NCAA Tournament, a precarious position that probably won't hold unless they can find a way to win some games on the road. Purdue smoked No. 17 Iowa 104-68 at Mackey Arena on Wednesday, the largest win over a ranked opponent in program history, and it would be an ideal time for the Boilers to prove they can take some of that energy on the road. Every other time they've thrashed a good team at home this season, it has been followed closely by a head-scratchingly lackluster performance on the road.
This game could be decided on the glass. The Hoosiers are trying to get back to dominating the boards after losing the rebounding battle 32-24 at Ohio State on Saturday. That was uncharacteristic for a team that is 13th in the country in average rebounding margin at plus-7.7. Against the Buckeyes, two of Indiana's best rebounders – Joey Brunk and Race Thompson – were limited or out of commission entirely. Brunk was "sick as a dog" the whole week, according to coach Archie Miller, so if he returns fully healthy against the Boilermakers that will be a huge boost for IU. Thompson, who has missed the last three games after taking a hard fall against Michigan State, is a dicier case, but Miller said he has done some half-court work this week and there is a chance he could suit up against the Boilermakers. He probably won't play big minutes even in a best-case scenario, but he could provide some energy off the bench. The Boilermakers, meanwhile, crashed the offensive glass with abandon against Iowa, racking up 16 second-chance points and holding Luka Garza, the Big Ten's second-leading rebounder, to only one rebound all night. Evan Boudreaux in particular has stepped up his rebounding game lately and had eight against the Hawkeyes.
The first 10 minutes of the game will be crucial. Purdue has made a habit this season of starting slowly on the road, falling behind big against Illinois and Maryland in particular. The Boilers have talked repeatedly about coming out with more intensity in the early going, but that won't be easy with a raucous Assembly Hall crowd breathing down their necks. If they can start strong and neutralize the crowd a little bit, they'll be in good position to pick up a second straight road victory.
In addition to the on-court stakes in this game, interesting subplots abound. Purdue's Matt Haarms will be returning to the arena where fans repeatedly directed a profane chant at him last season before he silenced them with a game-winning tip-in in the final seconds of a 48-46 Boilermakers win. It's safe to say he won't be a popular figure tomorrow. Hoosiers coach Archie Miller is looking for his first win over the Boilermakers in four opportunities, while Indiana is looking to break a streak of eight losses in nine games to its rival, the best stretch in the series for Purdue since 1968 to 1973.
At halftime, the Hoosiers will honor the 1980 Big Ten championship team that featured five All-Americans, including Isiah Thomas and Mike Woodson, and 12 NBA Draft picks. There has been significant speculation that this could be the day that Bob Knight makes his long-awaited return to Assembly Hall, although speculation is all it is right now. Knight hasn't been in the arena in nearly two decades and his return would cause a sensation that would overshadow even this important game. His long-time rival coach, Purdue's Gene Keady, has already been confirmed as attending.