The eerie atmosphere of an empty Assembly Hall on game day is a phenomenon Indiana has simply had no choice but to get used to. In the time of COVID-19, the privilege of playing sports at all comes with playing without a crowd with regular season conference contests taking on the same feel of secret preseason scrimmages that only become known to the public through leaked box scores.
Indiana has had 13 games to accept this new reality, and the Hoosiers mostly have. But it will be noticeable on Thursday at 7 p.m. when in-state rival Purdue comes to Bloomington and no one outside of media, friends and family are allowed in the stands. The Indiana football squad saw the Old Oaken Bucket game cancelled twice and never had to see what that game would be like without fans. The IU and Purdue women will play for the first time this season at 4 p.m. in West Lafayette and then the men’s squads will meet in Bloomington at 7 to see what a muted version of the rivalry looks like.
It means the Hoosiers will lose an advantage in a rivalry in which they haven’t had one lately. IU coach Archie Miller has never beaten Purdue in five tries and the Boilermakers have won seven straight since Feb. 20, 2016 and 10 of the last 11 match ups between the two programs since 2013.
“Playing without a crowd in a home game, especially in our conference, with the crowds that we all (usually) have, is a huge disadvantage,” Miller said. “In this game right here, those who have been in this game before know that in both facilities, especially this facility, playing at home is a little bit different. Teams go on runs. You don’t have that support behind you. You go on runs, you don’t have that momentum behind you. It’s something you’re getting used to at this point in time. We haven’t played a ton of home games, but it’s definitely different. It will definitely be disappointing to not have fans when we play this type of game.”
Miller pines for that advantage because he sees a Purdue team that reconstituted itself after a 16-15 season and constructed a more complete team. Indiana and Purdue have matching 8-5 overall records and 3-3 Big Ten marks, which puts them with Ohio State and Northwestern in a four-way tie for fifth in the Big Ten standings. But the Boilermakers are coming off an impressive road win over Michigan State and also have an impressive win over Ohio State on their resumé.
Like Indiana, they have an All-Big Ten caliber player in the post in junior center Trevion Williams, who is averaging 15.0 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. Unlike Indiana, the Boilermakers have depth in the front court with 7-foot-4 freshman Zach Edey coming off the bench. They also surround Williams with shooters, including guards Sasha Stefanovic, Eric Hunter Jr., Brandon Newman, Jaden Ivey and Isaiah Thompson. In 13 games each, Purdue has hit 106 3-pointers to Indiana’s 82.
“Purdue’s an execution team,” Miller said. “They’re a team that really thrives playing inside out. They establish their frontcourt players as well as anybody in the country and their perimeter guys do a good job of feeding the post but also playing off of it. Within their transition, within their actions, they’re shooting the ball a lot better.”
The Boilers have also been nearly as good defensively as the Hoosiers have. Purdue ranks 36th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency while Indiana ranks 14th and the Boilers are second in the Big Ten in scoring defense (66.2 ppg) just ahead of the fourth-ranked Hoosiers (66.6 ppg.)
And they’re an issue for an Indiana team that struggles to hit 3-point shots. Miller said after the Nebraska win that he expects Purdue to double-team his All-Big Ten center Trayce Jackson-Davis as much as Nebraska did.
“Purdue does a great job of defending the 2 (point shot),” Miller said. “If you look at their numbers and where they’re at, they’re one of the best teams in the country in not giving up two-point baskets. Part of it is they’re constantly post-doubling and the other thing is they have great physicality and size. Everything around the rim is challenged. Everything in the paint, just to be quite honest with you, is very very hard. that’s what makes them tough to deal with. You have to be able to make plays. I think being able to play off the doubles, being able to attack the paint. You have to be smart, but at the same time, the game comes down to being able to make some open shots. It really does.”
And the Hoosiers have to be able to do that even with no one in the building.
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