BLOOMINGTON – The sight is unmistakable. As cars turn into the parking lot at Assembly Hall tonight, their occupants will be greeted by a line of Indiana students winding around the side of Assembly Hall and past Cook Hall, the Indiana basketball headquarters, reaching almost all the way down to Fee Lane.
As I walked into the arena tonight, a large group of students started chanting "Let's go Hoosiers!" as the doors opened and they were permitted to start filing in and filling up the seats with "Beat Purdue" t-shirts and newspapers reading "Boiler Down" draped across the back. Over the last several seasons, Assembly Hall has not been nearly as intimidating as it usually is. A run of poor Hoosiers teams and then the coronavirus pandemic, which locked fans out entirely last season except for friends and family of players and coaches, have dulled the roar of the largest student section in the country. Even this season, as the Hoosiers have taken their first, uncertain steps forward into the Mike Woodson Era, the crowds have been, while not quiet, certainly not as loud as in years past. That seems likely to change tonight. With Indiana above .500 in Big Ten play, in the thick of the NCAA Tournament picture and a top 5 team invading Assembly Hall, it's probable this is one night the half-century old stadium will be packed to the gills. That that top 5 team is arch-rival Purdue, which has beaten the Hoosiers in nine consecutive matchups, only adds to the excitement. If Woodson is ever going to have a true "Welcome (back) to Indiana basketball" moment, it might happen tonight as he walks into what should be an electric atmosphere.
Woodson's Hoosiers are 11-0 at Assembly Hall this season and have already beaten then-No. 13 Ohio State in this building. Purdue is easily the toughest test Indiana has faced here this season, however. The Boilermakers were the preseason Big Ten title favorite and are in the thick of the championship race after knocking off first-place Illinois in Champaign on Monday, a double-overtime clash between two teams which appear to have Final Four potential. The Boilermakers are an offensive juggernaut, capable of scoring from anywhere on the court. Their offense, which ranks No. 3 in the country in shooting at 50.2%, will test Indiana's defense, which is No. 2 in opponent shooting at 36.5%.
Indiana might have to face its rival with the Hoosiers' best player at less than 100%. All-American forward Trayce Jackson-Davis suffered what appeared to be a hip or lower back injury upon taking a nasty fall against Nebraska on Monday and missed the last eight minutes of that game. Indiana was able to close out the Cornhuskers without him, but its chances of beating Purdue without the 2019 Indiana Mr. Basketball are remote. Jackson-Davis is currently out warming up with his team and appears to be in full uniform so it's likely he'll play, but how much and how well remains to be seen. If he can't go for his usual 34-36 minutes, backup center Michael Durr will have to step in and play significant minutes, or IU will have to move Race Thompson to center and have him guard Zach Edey and Trevion Williams, which would be a dicey proposition at best that would involve Thompson giving up eight inches to Edey and a couple to Williams.
While the battle of All-American centers (Williams and Jackson-Davis have earned that distinction and Edey seems more and more on that path this season) will draw a lot of attention, it's really on the perimeter where this game will be decided. If Purdue has an Achilles heel, it's perimeter defense. The Boilermakers have struggled to keep quick, athletic guards out of the lane and Indiana has one of those in Xavier Johnson (plus another guard in Parker Stewart who could play that role if called upon). If Johnson can slice his way into the lane off of pick-and-roll action, as Illinois' Andre Curbelo did against the Boilers on Monday, Purdue gets vulnerable and gives up a heavy dose of layups and kick-out 3s. Johnson has the athletic ability to exploit Purdue's defense, but he'll have to avoid turnovers, which have been a bugaboo for him this season. If the Hoosiers do commit live-ball turnovers, Purdue's Jaden Ivey is among the best in the country at finishing in transition and he will punish mistakes.
As for Purdue, the gameplan is relatively simple: get the ball inside. Jackson-Davis is a good defender and the Big Ten's leading shot-blocker, but, as Edey demonstrated against Illinois mountain Kofi Cockburn on Monday, there are very few players anywhere capable of guarding him in the post. If Edey can get Jackson-Davis in foul trouble, Indiana's offensive ceiling lowers considerably – when Jackson-Davis has been off the court this year, the Hoosiers' offense has often looked downright ugly. Jackson-Davis will have to be especially careful about the way he defends.
This is a huge game for both teams, even without the rivalry stakes. The Hoosiers are looking for another signature victory to put on their burgeoning tournament resume and trying to remain undefeated at home. Purdue, after losing early to Rutgers and Wisconsin, can't afford another Big Ten defeat if it still harbors conference championship hopes. But no one in the gym is thinking much about any of that that. This is more than anything else another chapter (the 214th, to be exact) in one of the best rivalries in the country. Indiana is hoping it will represent the turning of the tide back toward the Hoosiers, while the Boilers are trying to win their 10th in a row against IU for the first time since 1914.