Indiana vs. Purdue: The Rivalry is Back

Living in Indianapolis, Indiana, it’s been all Indianapolis Colts all the time for the past month. Lost among the “Dwight Freeney ankle” stories and the “Peyton Manning is great” features was perhaps the most significant college basketball game played around Indy in nearly a decade. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring it to your attention.

On Thursday night, Indiana University hosted in-state rival Purdue University at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Indiana. While the two teams play on a yearly basis, the rivalry, which some analysts called the best in the college basketball during the Bob Knight and Gene Keady era, has lost considerable luster of late.

The downfall began right around the turn of the century. Bob Knight was forced out as the IU coach before the start of the 2000 season, replaced by Mike Davis. Though Davis reached the NCAA championship game in 2001, with a group of Knight recruited players mind you, his six-year run as the Hoosiers head man was marred by inconsistent play — IU failed to reach postseason action for the first time in 27 years under Davis — and poor recruiting choices. Namely opting to pursue high-profile national players with no ties to the state, of Indiana, instead of the homegrown kids who had been a staple under Knight. At the same time that Davis was running the IU basketball program into the ground, Gene Keady was fighting to keep his Boilermakers relevant. After a run of three straight Big Ten Conference championships in the mid-nineties, Keady’s Boilers missed the NCAA tournament four out of his last five years in West Lafayette, Indiana.

Keady coached his final game in 2005, and Davis in 2006. Purdue, who had been planning for Keady’s retirement, promoted former Boilermaker player Matt Painter to the role of head coach. Almost immediately, Purdue’s fortunes began to change. They won 22 games in 2007, and then, powered by the trio of Robbie Hummel (Valparaiso, Indiana), E’Twaun Moore (East Chicago, Indiana) and JaJuan Johnson (Franklin Central High School), proceeded to win 25 in 2008 and 27 in 2009. They entered this year’s matchup with the Hoosiers sporting an 18-3 record and #7 national ranking.

Indiana, on the other hand, went in the opposite direction when they changed coaches. Kelvin Sampson, a man who was already under sanctions from his previous job as the coach of Oklahoma, was brought in after Davis. He lasted all of a year and a half before he was forced to resign amidst rumors of more NCAA rules violations — which proved to be true — and academic incompetence. With him went all but two walk-on players, Kyle Taber and Brett Finkelmeier. The IU program was officially at rock bottom when the decision to bring in the highly regarded Tom Crean was made. Pegged as the man to lead the university out of the abyss, Crean suffered through a 6-25 mark during his first season, the worst in school history. But there were signs of progress, most notably in a recruiting class that featured Maurice Creek, Christian Watford, and a pair of corn-fed Hoosiers, Bloomington’s own Jordan Hulls, and Derek Elston out of Tipton, Indiana.

While the Boilers, along with Butler University, have dominated the Indianapolis basketball headlines this season, Indiana has made tremendous strides of its own. And if there were any doubts that the always excitable Crean wasn’t the man for the job, there shouldn’t be after Thursday’s game against Purdue. Not only did he coach a scrappy, overachieving group of youngster to a near upset against a possible Final Four contender, but he’s injected a much needed dose of adrenaline into the nearly dormant rivalry with the Boilers. He has Indiana fans believing, and when an Assembly Hall crowd believe in the product on the court, they’re among the loudest and most distracting in the country.

As the hard-fought game progressed on Thursday, I started getting chills at what I was witnessing. It was like old times. The near capacity crowd was into it from opening tip-off, waving giant faces behind the Purdue basket, chanting entertaining and offensive taunts, booing Keady when he was shown on the JumboTron…behaving exactly like you’d expect the home crowd at an IU/Purdue game to behave. I half expected Alan Henderson and Glenn Robinson to emerge from the locker room at halftime and start throwing elbows at each other under the basket.

Things were so heated in the second half, that when Verdell Jones III had a layup attempt blocked by Chris Kramer (Huntington, Indiana), Purdue freshman Kelsey Barlow was seen on camera wrapping his hands around his neck in the universal choke symbol. That spontaneous release of pent up emotion wasn’t the “classless” act that many have portrayed it to be — although I’ll admit, as an IU fan, I dropped a series of unrepeatable words when I saw it – rather, it was a genuine display of distaste for a worthy opponent. And it was exactly the sort of thing that’s been missing in this series these past few years. Forget the final score. Forget that Purdue is destined for greatness, and that IU will be lucky to make the NIT. Those things don’t matter right now. All that matters is the rivalry is back. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for next chapter to be written when Indiana visits Mackey Arena on March 3rd.

When the Colts season ends with a victory parade around downtown Indianapolis on Monday, Indianapolis sports fans attention will turn solely on the Indiana college basketball teams, and will be right here to bring you all the latest news and happenings.