If Indiana was playing any other opponent on Wednesday night, it might be easy to label this one a trap game.
The Hoosiers are coming off a landmark win over No. 13 Michigan State and bracing for a titanic matchup with No. 1 Michigan on Saturday in Bloomington with ESPN’s College Gameday coming to town. In between, they go on the road to face an 11-9 team that has proven to be dangerous but that is probably destined to be an NIT team at season’s end.
That might sound like a recipe for a favorite to subconsciously look ahead and get blindsided if we weren’t talking about Indiana-Purdue.
On Wednesday night at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, the No. 3 Hoosiers face a Purdue team that is adjusting to life in the post-Robbie Hummel era and gradually finding its identity with a starting lineup that includes three freshmen as starters.
But it’s still Purdue, so the Hoosiers (18-2 overall, 6-1 in the Big Ten) know what that means.
“Everybody’s going to be psyched to play in this game,” IU senior guard Jordan Hulls said. “It’s a big rivalry. It’s a Big Ten game and it’s the next game on the schedule, so everyone’s going to be pumped up about it.”
On some level, this one could have both teams more even more pumped up than usual. The veterans on this Indiana squad have certainly played Purdue teams that were better on paper, but not one with which the IU players had so much familiarity going back to their high school days.
All five Purdue starters and three of Indiana’s five are from Indiana. All told, there are 12 players on each roster who either grew up in Indiana, played at an Indiana high school or played with an Indiana-based summer travel program.
Hulls played on the same AAU team as Purdue forward D.J. Byrd. Cody Zeller’s Washington squad beat Purdue forward Travis Carroll’s Danville team in semi-state his junior year on the way to a state title. Carroll and Purdue’s Donnie Hale played against Zeller and injured IU forward Austin Etherington in the Indiana senior-junior All-Star series in 2010. Indiana’s Hanner Mosquera-Perea played at La Lumiere along with Purdue freshmen Rapheal Davis and Jay Simpson. Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell, a Park Tudor graduate, and Purdue’s Ronnie Johnson of North Central have met up several times as opponents and teammates. The list goes on.
“It’s fun playing against guys that you know,” Hulls said. “Guys that you’re good friends with and are competitors and we’re gonna compete and try to beat each other. It’s a pretty cool dynamic out there.”
Said IU coach Tom Crean: “I think it plays out on the court because there’s such a familiarity with each other and there’s some close friendships, not to mention rivalries. I think it’s a big part of it, especially because there’s young players in the game. We have some young freshmen and they have young freshmen that have played together, not to mention the older players like Jordan Hulls, Derek Elston and D.J. Byrd. I think it’s a big thing and I think there certainly should never be any concern about, ‘Is there enough intensity? Is there enough energy?'”
So, Crean said, it still comes down to execution against a Purdue team that is still difficult to deal with. The Boilermakers don’t have quite the offensive firepower they had when Hummel was teaming up with JaJuan Johnson, E’Twaun Moore and Lewis Jackson among others, but they still defend well. That they rank ninth in the Big Ten in scoring defense speaks more to the conference’s strength in that category than to their weakness, because they only allow 61.5 points per game. They also rank 39th in Division I in defensive efficiency, allowing just 89.9 points per 100 possessions. Teams are shooting just 38.4 percent from the field against them (fourth in the conference) and they don’t give up easy baskets or layups. Teams are shooting just 39.7 percent against them in 2-point range, which is the best defensive average in the conference.
“They’re a physical team,” IU junior swingman Will Sheehey said. “They rebound the ball well, and they try to press you full court.”
The Boilermakers are 4-3 in conference play and seem to have found a rhythm since opting to go with a three-freshman lineup with point guard Ronnie Johnson, center A.J. Hammons and swingman Rapheal Davis playing alongside shooting guard Terone Johnson and forward D.J. Byrd. Including non-conference games, they’ve won seven of their last 10.
Johnson, who had been a role player alongside Hummel, Jackson, Johnson and Moore, has because the Boilermakers’ featured scorer, averaging 13.5 points per game and 5.1 rebounds.
“He’s taking more shots,” Sheehey said. “He’s getting more rebounds, steals, assists, what not. He’s playing more minutes for them. Really, he’s a bigger part of their team, so we just have to take more time on scouting them.”
Byrd remains their top 3-point shooter, averaging 10.5 points per game with 47 3-pointers. Ronnie Johnson, Terone’s brother and former teammate on North Central’s 2010 state championship team, is averaging 9.2 points and 3.6 assists, and Hammons averages 9.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game.
“They play extremely hard,” Crean said. “They run their offense. They are a hard preparation because of the different screens that they set and all of the different ways that they can get Terone Johnson open and the ways that they can get D.J. Byrd open and Ronnie Johnson is as fast end-to-end as any guard in the country.”