DECKER: Ratcheting Up the Rivalry

There's an all-too-familiar ring to tonight's Indiana-Purdue match-up. Unranked Purdue travels to Bloomington to meet unranked Indiana…

There's an all-too-familiar ring to tonight's Indiana-Purdue match-up.

Unranked Purdue travels to Bloomington to meet unranked Indiana…

For the 12th consecutive time, these two arch-rivals meet without both teams ranked in the nation's top 25. The last time that occurred was Feb. 29, 2000, when No. 14 Indiana handled No. 20 Purdue 79-65 in Bloomington. It was a loss that knocked Purdue out of the Big Ten lead for good that season, and a game that proved to be the final contest Bob Knight coached at Assembly Hall.

In the seven years since, both have floundered. Other than IU's Final Four run in 2002, the two winningest programs in Big Ten history have been nothing more than extras on college basketball's big screen.

While those struggles haven't dampened each team's desire to dismantle each other when they take the floor, it has kept the rest of the college basketball world from giving a hoot when these two teams battle.

"You have to have national teams to have a national rivalry," Purdue Coach Matt Painter said. "The past five years, you haven't had national teams. I think it's really that simple."

There was a time Indiana vs. Purdue was as big as North Carolina vs. Duke or Kentucky vs. Louisville. Right now, it's not even the biggest game of the week in the Big Ten, paling in comparison to Tuesday's Ohio StateWisconsin match-up in Madison. While the Bucks and Badgers battled in front of a national television audience on ESPN, the Indiana-Purdue contest has been relegated to relative obscurity, available on the fledgling ESPNU channel that's offered primarily to satellite owners.

If that's a sign of the times, both programs would like to turn back the clock to how things used to be during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. During that 30-year span the two teams combined to win at least a share of the Big Ten title 16 times.

"Through the 70s, 80s, and 90s, you had two very good teams," Painter said. "You had two national programs butting heads. We don't have that right now, and when that happens, that's when the rivalry will get back to its peak."

It's been left to Painter and first-year IU Coach Kelvin Sampson to rebuild their respective programs and rekindle the country's interest in this match-up.

Indications are both are well on their way to doing that. After suffering through a 9-19 season a year ago, Painter has Purdue off to a 12-4 start this season, including wins over Oklahoma, DePaul and Missouri. A top-five recruiting class that features in-state standouts Robbie Hummel, Scott Martin, JaJuan Johnson and E'twaun Moore suggests Purdue has positioned itself to return to prominence for the foreseeable future.

Sampson, meanwhile, has Indiana off to a 10-4 start, highlighted by Sunday's 73-51 romp over No. 24 Michigan State. His defensive-minded approach has taken root with this year's team, and he has his own top-five class headed to town next fall, headlined by the second-ranked player in the nation, Indianapolis' Eric Gordon.

That sort of infusion of in-state talent should do wonders for a rivalry that's lost a bit of its luster this millennium.

"I think that's what makes college basketball great – these rivalry games," Sampson said.

There's no questioning how much tonight's game means to Sampson, who gets his first taste of the Indiana-Purdue rivalry when the game tips off at 7 p.m. And there's little doubt that around the state, it's still a matter of bragging rights between the school's respective fans.

But it will be nice when someone outside the state's borders cares about tonight's result as well.

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