Purdue eyes Big Ten crown going into rivalry game versus Indiana

If James Blackmon Jr. and the Boilermakers win, they will clinch at least a share of the school's 23rd regular-season conference championship.
Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

There is always plenty at stake when rivals Purdue and Indiana meet on the basketball court, something the Boilermakers and Hoosiers have done 205 times.

But Tuesday night’s meeting at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Ind., has the potential to be one of the most significant in Boilermakers history.

If No. 16 Purdue (23-6, 12-4 in the Big Ten) wins, it will clinch at least a share of the school’s 23rd regular-season conference championship and the first since the 2009-10 team shared the title with Michigan State and Ohio State.

That Purdue team — the most recent to advance to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 — clinched a share of the Big Ten crown on March 6, 2010, with a 64-60 victory at Penn State.

The Boilermakers also will be gunning for their second regular-season, two-game sweep of Indiana in three years. Purdue rallied to beat Indiana (16-13, 6-10) on Feb. 9 in Bloomington 69-64. That victory gave the Boilermakers a 116-89 lead in this series.

Purdue junior point guard P.J. Thompson, a Zionsville, Ind., native, always enjoys this rivalry.

“This one means a little bit more,” Thompson said Monday. “We know we can clinch a share of the Big Ten against our rival.

“The Big Ten has been a goal, and now we have an opportunity on Tuesday to do it against IU. You can’t beat that. I know IU is going to come in ready to play. They feel like they owe us one.”

Purdue junior guard Dakota Mathias can’t wait.

“It could be kind of a little storybook ending,” Mathias said. “We are fortunate to be in this position, and all of our guys are excited. We can’t wait for the atmosphere. In a rivalry, it doesn’t matter if one team is struggling. They are an explosive team, so we have to be ready to go.”

Purdue was handed the opportunity to clinch at least a share of the Big Ten title when Michigan State defeated No. 22 Wisconsin 84-74 in East Lansing, Mich., on Sunday.

The Boilermakers have a one-game lead on the Badgers with two games to play.

“There’s a lot of excitement for what is possible Tuesday night,” said Caleb Swanigan, Purdue’s leading scorer and likely Big Ten Player of the Year. “I don’t know how rare it is to have this opportunity against Indiana, but it registers with us.”

The excitement of Boilermakers coach Matt Painter is tempered a bit by the fact that his team lost Saturday at Michigan.

“For us, this is a little bit different, because we are coming off a loss, and there are a lot of things to talk about,” Painter said. “We’re trying to fix some problems. This would be great for our fans and great for our players, but we definitely have to play better than we did at Michigan.

“Indiana poses a lot of problems with their backcourt, their quickness and their skill level. And Thomas Bryant has a lot of versatility.”

Indiana snapped a five-game losing streak Saturday night with a 63-62 victory against Northwestern, but coach Tom Crean knows playing Purdue in sold-out Mackey Arena will be a major challenge, especially considering what is at stake for the Boilermakers.

“It’s another one of these (rivalry) games,” Crean said. “When we played Purdue, Wisconsin and Maryland, all those games came down to either the buzzer, the last possession or the last two possessions. What our guys have to understand is that although we didn’t get those wins, we have to figure out how to get over those humps.

“Will it be easy in (Mackey Arena)? Absolutely not. It is a very difficult place to play. They are good. They hit on all cylinders. There will be some different things we need to do this time, no doubt about that. We have to go in there and weather their runs. We have to defend them in transition and block out.”