WEST LAFAYETTE – Tonight's game is big for Indiana. It's massive for Purdue. Plain and simple, the Boilermakers have to win tonight to have any chance at an at-large NCAA Tournament bid short of a miracle run in the Big Ten Tournament. Add in the fact that this season-ending stretch of three must-win games for the Boilermakers begins against the in-state rival Hoosiers and this is maybe the biggest game Purdue will play this season.
The Boilers last took the court against Michigan on Saturday and lost 71-63, leading coach Matt Painter to lament his team's lack of competitiveness. Purdue has had more than a few games this season where it displays puzzlingly little energy, a trend that for most of the year was limited to the road but has recently expanded to games at Mackey Arena, where the Boilers have lost two straight for the first time since March 2014. Mackey is also a place where Indiana hasn't won since 2013, when the Hoosiers were ranked No. 3 in the country. It will be a terrific atmosphere at one of the loudest arenas in the country tonight and the Boilers will likely get an early boost from that crowd. It will be up to Indiana to weather that storm in the first 5-10 minutes of the game and hang around.
The Hoosiers have recently put themselves in good position for the NCAA Tournament, winning three of their last four games to climb firmly on the right side of the bubble. They are not yet anywhere near a lock, however, and probably need at least two more wins to feel safe on Selection Sunday. Getting one on the road tonight on the heels of wins over Minnesota and No. 9 Penn State would be another huge step toward ending Indiana's three-year March Madness drought. The Hoosiers have out-hustled their opponents in the last two games after a flat effort against Michigan on Feb. 16, but they got out-worked by Purdue in a 74-62 loss at Assembly Hall on Feb. 8. That performance seemed to be a wake-up call for the Hoosiers and they have played much better since then, but they have lost nine of their last 10 to Purdue and that could give the Boilermakers a small mental edge tonight.
One difference between the first matchup between these teams and the one that will take place tonight is the health of Indiana's Race Thompson. Thompson played only eight minutes in the first game against Purdue and grabbed just one rebound in his first game back from an injury suffered weeks earlier against Michigan State. Thompson has been Indiana's toughest player recently, bringing energy when the Hoosiers don't seem to have much. In the last nine games in which he has been fully healthy (not counting the loss to the Boilers when he clearly wasn't 100%), Indiana is 7-2. In the three games he missed completely with the injury, the Hoosiers went 0-3. If Indiana is going to out-tough the Boilers tonight in a way it wasn't able to back in Bloomington, it will be Thompson leading the charge.
The Boilermakers will also have to deal with Trayce Jackson-Davis, who seems to have burst through the mid-season freshman wall and is playing some of his best basketball of the season. The 2019 Indiana Mr. Basketball averaged 20 points and 13 rebounds in the Hoosiers' two wins last week and has three double-doubles in his last four games. He has become more assertive in looking for his own shot, something coach Archie Miller has been pushing him to do most of the season. Indiana will try to force the ball into him in the post early and often and it will be up to Trevion Williams or Evan Boudreaux to deal with his post touches. If Jackson-Davis can score a few times down low in the opening stretch of the game, it could quiet Purdue's crowd and help the Hoosiers survive what will likely be a difficult first few minutes.
This will be the 211th all-time meeting in one of the best rivalries in college basketball. This matchup matters more than a usual meeting between the in-state nemeses and it should be a hard-fought, defensive battle.