BLOOMINGTON – Purdue is finding itself. Indiana is still searching.
Before the 119th meeting in the Hoosiers-Boilermakers rivalry tonight, I wrote that we would learn a lot from this game. That turned out to be true and most of it points toward the Boilers being significantly further along in their development than Indiana. Both teams remain young, but Purdue's youngsters contributed significantly tonight, while Indiana's mostly faded into the background. Purdue shot the lights out, going 11 for 17 from 3-point range, while Indiana was 3 for 18 and the Boilermakers won 81-69.
It was the 11th win in 12 tries in this rivalry for Purdue, its best stretch in more than eight decades. The Boilermakers have now won two straight on the road and ended a four-game road trip that once seemed extremely daunting with a 2-2 record and a 4-3 mark in the Big Ten overall. This team, with five freshmen among its contributors and Trevion Williams running the show inside, is showing a ton of promise and seems to be growing in confidence by the game.
Williams' play is a huge part of that confidence. Outside of Luka Garza, he has been arguably the Big Ten's most dominant player over the last several weeks, shooting 60% in his last nine games and finding a way to get a good look whenever Purdue needs it. He's scored a combined 40 points in the second halves of the Boilers' last two games and had 22 points and 10 rebounds overall tonight.
"He's got that dog, he wants to win," Purdue guard Jaden Ivey said of Williams. "Tre being a junior, a leader, we need that from him. Every game, we need that from him and he brings his all on the court. He doesn't back down from anything, any challenge. That's what's great about him and I look up to him as a big bro."
That's the perfect type of player to have for a young team, the type of player who can make a big shot when some youngsters might be a little bit tight, the type of reassuring force that isn't going to let the moment get too big for him or his team. The Boilermakers seem like they'll go as far as Williams can take them.
Indiana has a similar player in Trayce Jackson-Davis, and he showed up tonight, scoring 25 points on 9 for 16 shooting and battling Williams with plenty of physicality in the post. Beyond that, however, the Hoosiers weren't able to come up with enough shooting and the defense wasn't good enough to overcome that lack of firepower. It's a familiar story for the Hoosiers and their record of futility in recent years against Purdue just keeps getting longer.
"It is not a fun thing, losing to a team that many times in a row," guard Armaan Franklin said. "It gets kind of old, you know. We want to be the team to change the culture about it, rewrite the story. We wanted to do that tonight, but unfortunately, we did not make enough plays, did not make enough shots. So, we will see them again, we will try to pick it up the next time."
Franklin's performance was one of the bright spots for Indiana as the sophomore from Indianapolis returned from an ankle injury that forced him out of the last two games to score 14 points and grab seven rebounds. He went 0 for 5 from 3-point range, showing off some rust as he struggled to get his legs underneath him.
Franklin's shooting wasn't an outlier, though. Outside of Jerome Hunter, who made a couple of tough shots from beyond the arc, Indiana was 1 for 13 from deep. Jackson-Davis provided an anchor for the team down low, but there wasn't much else going on offensively. The Hoosiers had their best chance to take control of the game early in the second half after closing the first half on a nice run, but couldn't get enough stops.
That's the other problem: the Hoosiers haven't been nearly as good defensively in the Big Ten portion of the schedule as they were in the non-conference slate. They were terrific in December against some pretty good competition, but haven't reached that level consistently since then.
"The first four to eight minutes of the second half, offensively we were fine," Indiana coach Archie Miller said. "(Purdue) didn’t give us much of a problem around the rim. We were able to score, but we just couldn’t get stops. This team has to be able to get stops, we have to find a way to play defensively very tough minded and find a way to have the defense as something we rely on. Offense is hard.
"Sometimes you are not going to shoot the ball well. ... They shoot the ball really well so your defense has to be good and tonight it wasn’t. That is what happens in this league when you don’t have that side of the ball in check."
With the loss, Miller falls to 0-6 in his tenure against Purdue, which, to state the obvious, isn't going to win him any plaudits from IU fanbase. Indiana will have another shot at the Boilermakers on March 6 in West Lafayette, but that's a long way off and the Hoosiers have a ton of work to do before they get there. With Franklin and Rob Phinisee ailing – Phinisee sprained his knee against Nebraska and was a game-time decision tonight before playing 24 minutes – the six-day break couldn't come at a better time.
The Hoosiers have some extra time off because their game Sunday against Michigan State was postponed. The Spartans have at least three COVID-19 cases within their program.
"With the game not happening on Sunday we can take some time and get more recovery because we need it," Miller said. "Our effort tonight was not as good as it needed to be."
"Sometimes (a break from games) is the best answer," Miller added. "For our team, we need to go back to work. We are going to have to figure some things out defensively because if we do not have that then we will be in big trouble going forward."