Insider: IU basketball slump vs. Purdue reflective of broader program decay

Zach Osterman
Indianapolis Star

WEST LAFAYETTE – Archie Miller sounded proud of his team postgame Saturday, and he should’ve been.

A group that has looked dispirited and low on confidence in recent weeks played through its problems at No. 23 Purdue, defending even when shots wouldn’t fall and persistent when turnovers weren’t turning into easy points. More simply, when it wasn’t easy to, Indiana fought back.

It still wasn’t enough to stop a 67-58 road loss, in a rivalry that has come to capture perfectly Indiana’s struggle to regain its footing as a program. The Hoosiers have now lost nine straight to Purdue, and just once in the annual series since setting a Mackey Arena record for margin of victory in 2013.

“We haven’t caved in,” IU coach Archie Miller said Saturday afternoon. “Even in our last two games, really love the staying with it, love our attitude.”

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Indiana forward Jerome Hunter (21), p2/, Indiana forward Trayce Jackson-Davis (23) and Purdue forward Trevion Williams (50) reach out for the rebound during the second half of an NCAA men's basketball game, Saturday, March 6, 2021 at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette.

Miller put a reasonable spin on a tough afternoon, one that saw his team keep pushing despite shooting just 38.5% from the field and a paltry 5-of-23 from behind the 3-point line.

That the Boilermakers weren’t much better, and struggled badly with turnovers (15 total) was partly a credit to the Hoosiers’ (12-14, 7-12) defensive commitment.  Four different Hoosiers scored in double figures. Rob Phinisee’s late-season improvement continued. Jerome Hunter had good moments, while Trayce Jackson-Davis had his hands full with Purdue freshman Zach Edey.

Even on a dismal afternoon from distance in a building where the Hoosiers seem predestined to struggle — IU has shot 26.2% on 3s inside Mackey Arena since the start of the 2013-14 season — Indiana did not seem to lose its self-belief.

But it still lost the game, and in fact never really looked like winning it. The Hoosiers led for barely more than five minutes, and not after 9-7 with 13:56 left in the first half. The lead changed hands just once. Multiple times in the second half, Indiana surged enough to bring the game within one or two possessions. But something always spoiled the opportunity, closing the window before the Hoosiers could climb through.

“Timely plays,” Miller said, crediting Purdue’s performance. “Played well. Played hard. They’re a good team.”

IU’s fourth-year coach, now 0-7 in this rivalry series, sounded like his counterpart did during that night in 2013 (Jan. 30, to be precise).

Indiana won 97-60 en route to its first Big Ten title in more than a decade. All five starters scored in double figures for Tom Crean’s team. Their performance set an Indiana record for margin of victory against Purdue, and it was the worst loss the Boilermakers had ever suffered inside Mackey Arena.

“The facts are the facts,” Purdue coach Matt Painter, calm and measured, said that night. “They played harder than us. They played better than us. That’s what you really say.”

In the eight seasons since, Painter has led Purdue to five NCAA tournament appearances, with a sixth to come in a little more than a week. Only once since 2015 have the Boilermakers finished outside the Big Ten’s top four, and they’ve won two conference titles in that stretch. Starting in 2016-17, Purdue has been to two Sweet 16s and an Elite Eight and, despite their youth, the Boilermakers (18-8, 13-6) look well-built to cause some trouble in the all-Indianapolis NCAA tournament beginning later this month.

Absent a surprise run to the Big Ten tournament title and the conference’s automatic bid, the Hoosiers almost certainly won’t be joining them in that festival of basketball.

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Assuming there are no heroics to come in the Big Ten postseason, this will make just two appearances in the past seven NCAA tournaments for Indiana since the end of that high-flying 2013 season. The Hoosiers won one more Big Ten title under Crean but it has proved the exception — in the past eight seasons, IU has finished ninth, seventh, first, 10th, seventh, ninth, 11th and now 10th in the final Big Ten standings.

And since that night in January 2013, Indiana has won exactly one game against Purdue. The inability to even compete closely with Purdue has become a placeholder for so much of what Indiana cannot seem to get back.

This isn’t to suggest IU should be better than Purdue by birthright. The Hoosiers have more top-end history, but it’s always worth remembering Purdue both leads the overall series back to its inception and has the most Big Ten regular-season titles of any program in the conference.

Purdue guard Sasha Stefanovic (55) dribbles against Indiana guard Rob Phinisee (10) during the second half of an NCAA men's basketball game, Saturday, March 6, 2021 at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette.

It’s more the convenience and accuracy of Purdue as a measuring stick. The program closest geographically and possibly culturally to Indiana has built, through its coach’s persistence and skill, a formula for winning, while Indiana has scrounged simply for a consistent baseline.

Struggling so badly to beat your rival — a program with more recent success, greater coaching stability and a clear-eyed idea of what it is and how it sustains winning — underscores how badly Indiana is listing right now.

And yes, it’s true that if Miller’s project is to succeed in Bloomington, it must be given enough benefit of the doubt that not every result requires an inquisition after the fact. But rivalry results will always matter in that way, and right now, they’re completely lopsided. Indiana fans poke fun at Purdue for its lack of national titles but the truth is, many of them would quietly love to have what the Boilermakers do right now.

Turning around its results against Purdue will not fix all of IU’s problems, but the inability to even up the rivalry goes hand in glove with the Hoosiers’ wider inability to regain their footing in the conference. Increasingly, the two issues feel inseparable.

Follow IndyStar reporter Zach Osterman on Twitter: @ZachOsterman.