Brian Evans and Joe Hillman know. They’ve been through the Indiana-Purdue basketball wars, winning their share, losing a few.
Forget the blather about treating every game the same. Rivalries are never the same, whether it’s IU-Purdue, Duke-North Carolina, Kentucky-Louisville and more.
IU coach Tom Crean knows this. He also knows his freshmen won’t really understand what they’ll face tonight until they experience Mackey Arena in all its gold-and-black passion. The students, called the Paint Crew, end every timeout at every game with a chant certain to come with the Hoosiers on the floor:
Still, Crean wanted to give his young guys an edge. He had Evans and Hillman talk to the team Tuesday afternoon before they boarded the bus for the trip to West Lafayette.
The message, senior guard Jordan Hulls, was clear:
“It’s a rivalry game. Throw everything out the window. You’ve got to bring it no matter who you’re playing. It will be hostile out there.”
Teammate Will Sheehey knows that hostility. He’s made two trips to Mackey Arena, with a 1-1 record to show for it.
What Evans and Hillman had to say, he said, was a plus.
“Those guys have been there, done that. They’re a huge part of this tradition. They have the wisdom because been there. They give us advice, and we make sure we listen. We have our plan. It’s icing on the cake for those guys talking to us.”
The No. 3 Hoosiers are eight- to 10-point favorites depending on where you look. They are 18-2 overall and tied with No. 1 Michigan for first in the Big Ten, with 6-1 records.
Purdue is trying to recover from a 7-6 non-conference record, a brutally difficult task given the strength of the Big Ten. The Boilers are 11-9 overall, 4-3 in the conference. They have won four of their last five games since going to a starting lineup that includes three freshmen -- Ronnie Johnson, A.J. Hammons and Rapheal Davis -- along with veterans Terone Johnson and D.J. Byrd.
But this game, Sheehey said, goes way beyond that.
“We all know it’s our biggest rival. The game will be tough, hard fought. It’s the same level of intensity every year.
“They’re a physical team. They rebound well. They like to pressure full court. Those are some things we’ve been working on. It’s just a tough game.”
Associate head coach Steve McClain did the scouting for this game. He knows, as well as anyone, the challenges IU faces.
“There’s no question they’re playing a lot of young guys,” he said, “and their veterans are also stepping it up and playing well.
“With Rapheal and Ronnie and Hammons starting and getting games under their belts, they’re getting better every time they play.
“Every team creates a different challenge. Terone Johnson is one of the better wings (in the Big Ten). Ronnie Johnson as a freshman point guard is doing a great job for them.”
McClain down played the fact many of the players on both teams are familiar with each other because they either played high school or travel ball against each other growing up.
For instance, Jordan Hulls and Derek Elston played on the same AAU team as Purdue forward D.J. Byrd, that Yogi Ferrell and Purdue’s Ronnie Johnson played with and against each other during their high school/travel ball days, that Hanner Perea played at La Lumiere in northern Indiana with Purdue’s Rapheal Davis and Jay Simpson, Cody Zeller’s Washington team beat Travis Carroll’s Danville squad in the semistate, and that Carroll and Donnie Hale played against Zeller and IU’s Austin Etherington in the Indiana senior-junior All-Star series.
“The kids probably think about it more, but once the game starts, I’m not sure who they played with in AAU ball has a lot to do with it.”
What does mean something is that the Hoosiers want to be 7-1 in the Big Ten entering Saturday night’s showdown with Michigan. ESPN has been hyping that game almost as hard as Ray Lewis denied performance enhancing drugs allegations.
Bottom line -- if IU wants to win a Big Ten championship, it has to win this game.
If you saw the latest Scout.com rankings, you know IU’s recruiting class for 2013 remains outstanding.
Noah Vonley is the highest-rated player, at No. 7. Then comes No. 59 Stanford Robinson and No. 66 Troy Williams.