BLOOMINGTON – The Assembly Hall crowd was ready to explode tonight. The student section is packed with eager fans and nearly every seat in the arena is occupied, save for a smattering in the rafters.
The Hoosier faithful had precious little to cheer about in the opening minutes, watching the Boilermakers open an 8-point lead and All-American Trayce Jackson-Davis head to the bench with two fouls in the game's first 5:36.
Then came the noise. The crowd perked up when Rob Phinisee poked the ball away from Trevion Williams in the post and it let out a roar when Phinisee buried a 3 on the other end. Phinisee followed with another 3-pointer, a driving reverse layup, another steal and another layup plus a foul, and a final 3, maybe the best stretch of his career. When the final 3-pointer ripped through the net to bring Indiana within one, the crowd was in a frenzy and the Lafayette native was waving his arms to make it louder. When the teams came out of a timeout, Purdue had made an adjustment and was showing a hard hedge from its big man when Phinisee went around pick-and-roll screens, trying to get the ball out of his hands. At the break, the senior point guard has a season-high 17 points on 7 for 10 from the field, plus four steals and three rebounds.
In large part because of that 13-point flurry from Phinisee, the Hoosiers lead 37-28 at halftime. They went in front with an 13-0 run that included a technical free throw from Trey Galloway, the result of a tech on Purdue's Jaden Ivey, who (inadvertently or not) shoved Galloway to the floor, just the latest chapter in the heated rivalry between these programs. The Hoosiers were helped significantly by a 1-10 turnover disparity in favor of IU and they racked up a 11-2 advantage in points off giveaways.
It wasn't all sunshine and crimson-colored roses for Indiana, of course. Like so many other teams, the Hoosiers have simply had few answers for 7-foot-4 Boilers center Zach Edey, who has nine points and five rebounds. Jackson-Davis picked up the two early fouls trying to slow Edey down and did not return the rest of the half, leaving backup center Michael Durr to carry the load. Durr held his own – relatively – but Edey is too big even for IU's 7-footer and the Purdue big man has mastered the art of getting good position in the post that makes it virtually impossible for any Hoosier to deal with him. That's no shame for the IU big men – Illinois' Kofi Cockburn, one of the best centers in the country, had the same issue earlier this week – but it is an issue the Hoosiers will have to deal with, either by a double team or other means, at some point tonight. That Indiana was able to go in front against such a good team with Jackson-Davis on the bench, however, is an enormous step forward for this team.
Edey has not been Purdue's lone offense, however. The Boilermakers made several 3s in the early portion of the half that were open because Indiana's defense rotated poorly. The Hoosiers have done a pretty good job of on-ball defense this season, but their team defense still has occasional breakdowns. They can't afford too many of those: Purdue will bury the Hoosiers in outside shots off kick-outs from Edey if Indiana isn't disciplined. Such is the bind Purdue's offense puts opponents in. The good news for Indiana is it tightened up significantly over the final few minutes of the half and did not give up a 3 in the last 13:34 before the break.
Purdue's defense has the opposite issue. The Boilermakers aren't bad in help defense, but their on-ball work has been less than impressive all season, especially against quicker guards. That's why I wrote before the game Indiana point guard Xavier Johnson, who fits that bill and is capable of slashing his way to the rim, could be Indiana's most important player. For a few minutes, that seemed correct: Johnson scored or assisted on Indiana's first eight points, cutting to the rim for a couple of layups and drawing the defense for an alley-oop to Jackson-Davis that brought the house down. Then Johnson went to the bench for a breather, Phinisee took the court and the latter played most of the rest of the half (for good reason). That doesn't mean, however, Purdue won't have to deal with Johnson in the second half. The Boilermakers will have to figure out a way to deal with him, especially because Indiana began playing Johnson and Phinisee together at the end of the first half.
The first eight minutes of this game looked about the way most expected, with Indiana turning in a game performance against an opponent that is simply better. The next 10 mintues, however, featured the best stretch of Indiana basketball since ... the Big Ten title run in 2016? Earlier? It's been a long time since Indiana took it to a top 5 team in Assembly Hall and the crowd has responded by going berzerk, leaving Purdue a little out of sorts. Indiana's lead could be even bigger if it were not 8 for 16 at the foul line (Purdue is also 1 for 5 at the stripe). This game is there for the Hoosiers. A win opens up a whole new world for Mike Woodson's first team.