Mike Woodson's final game as a collegiate basketball player was a Sweet 16 loss to Purdue in the 1980 NCAA Tournament. Woodson's Indiana team, which had won the Big Ten title during the regular season and was seeded No. 2 in the NCAA Tournament, got tripped up by a sixth-seeded Boilermakers team, denying Woodson a chance to play in that Final Four in his hometown of Indianapolis.
Woodson's mere presence on the court that afternoon was semi-miraculous – he had back surgery in December and was expected to miss 3 to 6 months, but returned in less than two to lead the Hoosiers into the postseason.
“To lose and go out the way we did, it was a tough day for me,” Woodson said. “I didn't have as much in the tank that I thought I had coming back from the back surgery. That was tough. And I played. I asked (then-Indiana coach Bob) Knight to play me, don't baby me.
“By the time we got to the Purdue game, there's no excuse, they were the better team that night in Lexington (Kentucky), there's no doubt about that, I just didn't have much left in the tank.”
Purdue's victory over Woodson and Co. was a key step on the road to its second and most recent Final Four. Despite the tournament defeat, Woodson's performance that season became an indelible memory for a generation of young basketball fans in the state.
“I'm 9, 10 years old, and I just remember when he got hurt and was able to come back and play those last seven or eight games,” current Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “Indiana winning the Big Ten, he was MVP of the league and he played a third of the games this year. ... We used to be Mike Woodson in the backyard, shooting that pull-up jumper.”
More than 40 years later, Woodson returns to a rivalry that has been transformed from the back-and-forth affair it was during his time in Bloomington – his teams were 4-6 against the Boilers – into a series dominated by the Old Gold and Black.
Purdue has won nine straight against the Hoosiers, its longest streak in the series since a stretch of nine in a row from 1929 to 1935. The fourth-ranked Boilermakers, a team many believe has the talent to take Purdue to the Final Four for the first time since Woodson's playing days, will try to extend their streak into a third Indiana coaching regime when they invade Bloomington tonight.
Awaiting them will be a new-look Hoosiers team Woodson has coaxed to a 13-4 record (4-3 in Big Ten play) in his first season. That mark includes 11 straight victories at Assembly Hall to open the season.
“They've had their way here of late, but hopefully we can make that change (tonight),” Woodson said of facing the Boilermakers (15-2, 4-2 Big Ten). “It's not going to be something that's going to be hand-delivered to us. You've got to go get it.
“(When I played), the games (against Purdue) were a major battle,” the first-year coach added. “Nobody wanted to give. Playing at Purdue was tough, and I'm sure they feel the same way when they come here.”
Woodson's predecessor, Archie Miller, went 0-7 in four seasons against the Boilers including a pair of losses by nine and 12 points last season.
Those two matchups were played in front of only players' and coaches' friends and family because of Big Ten restrictions on attendance during the coronavirus pandemic. The lack of seething crowds and the seeming inevitability of Purdue victories took significant edge off the rivalry, but Assembly Hall is planning for a sellout tonight and the Hoosier faithful are hopeful a turnaround in their fortunes is at hand.
“It's going to be crazy,” Indiana guard Rob Phinisee, a Lafayette native, said of tonight's clash. “Not having fans last year was a big part (of the drop in enthusiasm), but just the energy with both teams, there's a lot more buzz between the two teams this year.”
When: 7 p.m. today
Where: Assembly Hall, Bloomington
Records: Indiana (13-4, 4-3 Big Ten), No. 4 Purdue (15-2, 4-2)
TV: Fox Sports 1
Radio: 92.3 FM, 1380 AM, 100.9 FM