Saturday, February 20, 2016

The rivalry. Re-imagined.

So maybe tonight's the night they reach back a little, the black-and-gold and the cream-and-crimson. Maybe the old ghosts come out: a spectral plastic chair skittering diagonally across the floor, or Matt Painter getting so worked up he falls off the bench like the Ghost of Gene Keady Past, or the Assembly Hall crowd baying for A.J. Hammons' blood the way it used to bay for Brian Cardinal's.

Heck. Maybe a Cardinal doppelganger will even crash over the scorer's table into the lap of a certain sportswriter doppelganger.

All those years I was privileged to watch Indiana and Purdue go at each other in the heyday of their regal coaches, Keady and Bob Knight, and that's my most vivid memory of it all. They were still letting the sportswriting riffraff sit courtside in those days, and so there I was, Assembly Hall in full sonic-boom mode, IU and Purdue battling it out in overtime ...

And, boom: All of a sudden 240 pounds of sweaty despised Boilermaker was crashing over the table into my chest.

"Oof!" I believe I said, as Cardinal flew into me.

He got up. I caught my breath. And then he turned to look at me as he headed back into the fray.

"You OK?" he said.

"Yeah," I gasped.

I always thought that was the most amazing thing, that in the middle of all the IU-Purdue chaos he'd turn  and show concern for the elderly. Someone must have raised him right.

And IU-Purdue?

Well, tonight we get to see if it's been raised right. Or re-raised, as the case may be.

The rivalry has often been a pale imitation of itself since Keady and Knight left the stage, and not just because there has been a distressing number of years since when not much was on the line when they played. Either one team was good and the other wasn't, or neither was all that good. Rarely has it been the clash of heavyweights it used to be.

Well. Not tonight.

Tonight Purdue comes in 21-6 and tied for fourth in the Big Ten, and Indiana comes in 21-6 and tied for first, and the Big Ten race will very much ride on the outcome. Both teams have players. Both teams have more than the usual motivation. Assembly Hall will howl like it hasn't for this one in years.

So how it will go?

I don't know. Both of these teams have been enigmas on occasion, but Purdue has been somewhat more of an enigma. When its bigs show up, it's as formidable as any team in the country. When they don't, it loses to Illinois. So it goes.

Indiana, meanwhile, is as formidable as any team in the country when Troy Williams shows up. He was invisible against Michigan State, and the Hoosiers got spanked. He was Victor Oladipo 2.0 against Nebraska, and they rolled. So it goes.

If I was a betting man, I'd bet Oladipo 2.0 shows up tonight. I'd bet Yogi Ferrell shakes off his recent funk. And I'd bet Indiana wins, but, just for old times' sake, the Hoosiers will have to go overtime to do it.

I do know one thing: No sportswriter will be hurt in the making of this instant classic, seeing as how they stash them well away from the combat zone these days. Although overtime in an 8:30 p.m. start might make a few sportswriters want to hurt themselves, given the whole deadline thing.

Here's hoping they'll have plenty to write about. Really fast, of course.

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