BLOOMINGTON – In early December 2011, when I was a senior in high school half an hour outside Chicago, I decided I would attend Indiana as an undergraduate. I filed the requisite paperwork, bought some Cream and Crimson gear and started calling myself a member of Hoosier Nation.
Less than a week later, Christian Watford swished a 3-pointer to beat No. 1 Kentucky, signaling the end of a three-year tailspin for the Hoosiers' basketball program and presaging the 2012-13 season, when Indiana was preseason No. 1, won a Big Ten title and Assembly Hall reached volumes unmatched in the decade since.
Unmatched that is, until Thursday. That night, when Rob Phinisee hit a 3-pointer to beat No. 4 Purdue and the Indiana faithful rushed the court, a new generation of fans got to experience the sense of excitement and optimism I did 10 years ago when, at a burger joint with my father, I watched Watford hit one of the most famous shots in college basketball history.
To be clear: Phinisee's 3 was a junior version of Watford's. Indiana had not fallen to the same level the Hoosiers did from 2008 to 2010 and therefore the rise cannot be quite as cathartic.
But for fans who have spent the last half-decade watching mediocre Hoosiers teams – repeatedly mediocre in the exact same way for much of the last four years – fumble and stumble their way to the wrong side of the NCAA bubble every season, it certainly felt like a turning point. The Assembly Hall student section gave voice to that feeling when it rushed the court en masse and Phinisee, an Indiana native and one of the program's more maligned players in recent seasons, was lifted into the air in the center of the celebration.
Even the newest Hoosiers, those with no connection to the program or the state before they arrived on campus this summer, could sense the enormity of the moment when it happened.
“We're a great team overall,” said point guard Xavier Johnson, a Pittsburgh transfer. “Coach (Mike Woodson) recruited great talent to come in and we have talent that stayed from last year's team, as well. We came out and competed and got the job done. I'm lost for words, how happy I am.”
For Woodson, it was the type of game that mostly escaped former coach Archie Miller for four years: a game he can point to as evidence the program is moving in the right direction. The Hoosiers beat a top 5 team, stifling one of the best offenses in the country for long stretches, and won the game on a 3-pointer, long an Indiana offensive shortcoming. That the victory came against the archrival Boilermakers, a team the Hoosiers had not beaten in almost six years, added to the sense Indiana was trying to exorcise all of its demons in one night.
This triumph is likely to have staying power in part because, like the 2011 Wildcats, Purdue is a good bet to be remembered as one of the best teams in college basketball this season. Kentucky went on to win the national title four months after the Wat Shot and it would surprise few experts if the Boilermakers did the same in April.
Yes, despite the loss to Indiana and the team's 4-3 record in the Big Ten – a half-game behind the Hoosiers – Purdue is still among the best teams in college basketball and has a team capable of breaking its four-decade Final Four drought.
While Woodson is in the early stages of building a winner in Bloomington, Matt Painter has already done so in West Lafayette.
Indiana might have done significant damage to Purdue's hopes of winning a 25th Big Ten title this season, but the Boilermakers remain the state's dominant team, at least for now.
“You're trying to win a championship. How can you win a championship if you keep taking losses?” Painter wondered after the loss to Indiana. “That's the whole point here and our guys understand that.”
For one night, however, Purdue's quest for the mountaintop this season took a back seat to Indiana's climb out of the valley. For one night, Indiana belonged to the Hoosiers again.
Dylan Sinn covers college basketball for The Journal Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.
See a video
To see a video about the Purdue-Indiana game, click on this URL -- https://vimeo.com/668546023
Indiana vs. Michigan
When: 3:30 p.m. today
Where: Assembly Hall, Bloomington
Records: Indiana (14-4, 5-3 Big Ten), Michigan (8-7, 2-3)
Radio: 92.3 FM
Purdue vs. Northwestern
When: 1 p.m. today
Where: Mackey Arena, West Lafayette
Records: No. 4 Purdue (15-3, 4-3 Big Ten), Northwestern (9-7, 2-5)
TV: Big Ten Network
Radio: 1380 AM, 100.9 FM