A pivotal week is upon the Hoosiers. How will they respond?
IU is tied for the Big Ten lead with Michigan at 6-1, but whether the Hoosiers will have a shot at the title depends in large part on what happens this week. The talk nationally is about this Saturday's IU-Michigan game at Assembly Hall, but locally the attention remains on IU's trip to West Lafayette on Wednesday night to play Purdue. Since Mackey Arena opened in the late 1960s, IU has won there in back-to-back seasons only three times: 1975 and 1976, 1983 and 1984, and 2005 and 2006. At this time last year, IU had lost five in a row to Purdue, the longest losing streak against the Boilermakers since 1968-72; now, the Hoosiers will be favored to win their third in a row against Purdue.
I'll have more to say about the specific matchup later today, but it's worth taking a broad look at the rivalry, and how much it has changed in the past couple of years. At this time last season, IU was nearly four calendar years removed from its last win against Purdue. No player on last year's roster had ever defeated Purdue. That changed quickly, with a 17-point win at Mackey and an 11-point win at home on Senior Night, a fitting end for a group of young men who had been ridiculed by many, Purdue fans not the least of them. They had suffered through three consecutive 30-loss season, all while watching Purdue earn a high seed in the NCAA Tournament every year and seeing Butler advance to consecutive title games. Things have changed, and quickly. Things began to change in the fall of 2010, when Cody Zeller signed and the likes of Yogi Ferrell and Hanner Mosquera-Perea verbally committed. Of course, it took another year for things to turn around in any measure on the court. Anyone who was around then recall the premature trimphalism. Purdue is a program that knows about hard work; " Indiana thinks championships will be served to them because of the name on the front of their jerseys." Cody Zeller was mocked as "Baby Jesus" because IU fans had the audacity to think he might be a transformative recruit for the program. The most venom, of course, was reserved for Tom Crean, derided as "Clappy the Clown" for trying to encourage his players as they scuffled through three consecutive 20-loss seasons. Crean had never had a losing season before he came to IU, yet to read what Purdue fans had to say about him was to imagine that he was a homeless guy who had been pulled off the street on April 2008. What was striking then, and especially looking back, is just how permanent this all was assumed to be: as one Purdue fan asked, "can we even consider a wins against a bottomfeeder like IU noteworthy?" Fortunately, Purdue fans have not had to wrestle with that dilemma since the question was posed.
An interesting thought exercise is to imagine that in early November 2011, I had gone over to H&R and made a fanpost that said something like this: "Guys, here's how I see things playing out between now and the end of January 2013. IU will cruise through the 2011 non-conference season undefeated, including a buzzer-beater against eventual national champ Kentucky. IU will beat Ohio State and beat the hell out of Michigan State. Our road woes won't be completely resolved, but we will beat Purdue by 17 at Mackey (and 11 at home) and will finish the regular season strong. IU will advance to the Sweet 16 and give the eventual champs a hell of game. Thanks to a bit of a downturn to college hoops, IU will be the preseason #1, and despite a couple of tough losses to Butler and Wisconsin, IU will head to Mackey with an 18-2 record, tied for first in the Big Ten, and ranked #3 nationally. All told, after winning 29 percent of his first 94 games, Tom Crean will win 80 percent of his next 45." I would have been laughed out of the place, of course, but what I describe is exactly what happened. Yet, if anything, Purdue fans seem even more entrenched about what a rank incompetent Crean is. Eighteen months ago, IU's (now) upperclassmen were bums and our recruits were overrated. Today, anything less than an undefeated season demonstrates Crean's stupidity.
Which brings me to Travis's rivalry post over at H&R today. Contrary to popular belief, I like Travis and think highly of him as a writer and of the great job he has done building a community over there. I thought his post today was pretty reasonable, with a couple of exceptions:
Indiana is the blue-blood program that can recruit with ease and come back from a major scandal based on name alone. Purdue is the hard-working, scrappy team that fights and claws for everything it has earned, because nothing is ever given to Purdue.
I'm sorry, but that's absurd. Of course, IU's name as an asset. It always has been, even back when Purdue fans were mocking "dusty old banners" and anticipating the Purdue Decade. But the idea that anything was handed to the players and coaches on IU's current team bears no connection to reality. Every good team works hard. Tom Crean inherited a roster with zero scholarship players. He has worked his ass off to put this program where it is. Are we supposed to believe that it's easy to land a player like Cody Zeller, who was choosing between IU, North Carolina, and Butler? It's easy to identify and develop the likes of Victor Oladipo and Will Sheehey, sub-100 recruits who somehow eluded other coaches and recruiting gurus? It's easy to get commitments from blue chip recruits, guys with great offers from programs that then were doing well? I have quite a bit of respect for Matt Painter and the job he has done with this team and during his time at Purdue. But this notion that Purdue is the only hardworking team, that everyone else is half-assing it, is the most annoying thing emanating from West Lafayette other than the methane. Yes, IU's name and tradition always made it likely that IU would be back someday. But there are plenty of historically elite college basketball and football programs that have been down for way longer than three years. That it has happened relatively quickly isn't indicative of IU having been handed a lottery ticket; it's because of the dedication of the current players and coaches.
Purdue has the most regular season big Ten championships with 22, while Indiana is second with 20. Indiana is No. 2 in all-time conference winning percentage at .639 and Purdue is No. 3 at .637. Both schools have won the NIT once, while Indiana's only significant head-to-head edge is in national titles. Their five to our zero is what sets the Hoosiers apart because they have gotten it done in March while Purdue, tragically, often falls short due to injury, bad luck, or simply choking.
Well, this is true, but only to a point. Purdue certainly has had some bad luck with its best teams over the past 30 years. But I reject the notion that bad bounces in the Tournament are the only reason that IU has a better Tournament record than Purdue. IU has a better Tournament record than Purdue because IU has been much better than Purdue during the NCAA Tournament era.
By saying this, I'm not trying to minimize Purdue's accomplishments over the entire history of the Big Ten. Purdue has a comfortable lead in the overall series. Purdue has the most Big Ten titles. Still, when considering NCAA Tournament records, it's probably worthwhile to consider how the programs have fared from 1939 to present (the NCAA Tournament era):
Ohio State 18
Michigan State 13
Penn State 0
Now, Purdue is still in a respectable position, but the three Big Ten schools that have had the most NCAA Tournament success over the years are at the top. No suprise there.
The AP Poll, which began in 1948-49, is another good measure of regular season success. IU has been ranked in the poll for 525 weeks. Purdue has been ranked for 301 weeks. IU has spent 270 weeks ranked in the top 10. Purdue has spent 116 weeks in the top 10. IU has spent 171 weeks ranked in the top 5. Purdue has spent 33 weeks in the top 5. IU has spent 50 weeks ranked #1. Purdue is not among the 56 schools that has ever been ranked number one. I can't deny that Purdue has missed on some good opportunities to make the Final Four. On the other hand, and this can't be overestimated, so has IU. That's the reality that is sometimes lost: every year, there are way more than four teams that are good enough to make the Final Four, but only four make it. Every school with multiple championships has had many other teams that were good enough to win and didn't. Yes, Purdue has had a handful of teams that could have made the Final Four. But it's not as if IU or any other program has capitalized on 100 percent of its opportunities.
But, all of that has little to do with what is going to happen tomorrow night or in the future. While Purdue has had a rough year, Purdue is playing better and seems to be recruiting well. The rivalry will continue, but I won't be disappointed if the current state of affairs will continue for a while.