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Midwestern Rivalry Trifecta

December 11, 2002 Columns No Comments

A Trifecta of Midwestern Rivalries

by Michael Ermitage

As December rolls towards Christmas and the non-conference portion of the college basketball season begins to wane, many fans begin to lose a little bit of interest. The initial excitement of the first few games has subsided, and the meaningful part of the season is still a couple weeks away. Not to mention that many are busy trying to figure out what to buy the mother-n-law for the Holidays. I always think a nice merlot is thoughtful and classy.

This Saturday offers a nice respite from the mall, however, particularly if you live between the Mississippi and the Appalachians, the Mason-Dixon Line and the Canadian Border. Three fierce rivalries resume in the Midwest when Purdue meets Indiana, Marquette hosts Wisconsin and DePaul travels to Notre Dame.

Indiana and Purdue

Purdue has been playing Indiana since the Theodore Roosevelt administration. I’m fairly certain that the first games in this series still had a peach basket involved. And it was Purdue who was hitting nothing but the bottom of the basket early in the series, dominating the first 35 years of the rivalry. Since the introduction of the NCAA tournament, the much more heralded Hoosiers have a slight advantage.

These two teams have been showing the nation why Indiana hoops is considered among the best long before any Gene Hackman movies. They have a combined 2960 wins and 65% winning percentage. They are the top two teams in the Big Ten in both overall wins and conference championships.

They are meeting this early in the season for a non-conference game, because the evil Big Ten corporate juggernaut instituted a rotating schedule that did not guarantee two games against rivals. Thank you, Penn State. Tipoff is at 8 p.m. EST at the RCA Dome (yes, the game is being held in a Dome, the same Dome that often hosts the Final Four, I told you Indiana hoops was a big deal). While Purdue is technically located in the state of Indiana, it could not be entering a more unfriendly place than the capital city of Indianapolis. If IU makes the Final Four this year, there is no doubt that Mike Davis will be appointed Mayor and anyone caught not wearing red in Indy will be deported to Lubbock, Texas – the place Hoosiers go to die.

In addition to playing a virtual road game, the Boilermakers will be facing one of the hottest teams in the nation. The Hoosiers enter the game 7-0 with wins against Maryland, Virginia and Gonzaga. The flaming-haired guard Tom Coverdale has been spectacular, dropping 30 points on the defending champion Terrapins. He has slightly overshadowed freshman phenom Bracey Wright, who is averaging 19.1 points per game, and was named the Maui Invitational MVP.

Purdue eeked out a win against up-and-coming Louisville, but was handled at Xavier. The Boilermakers enter the contest at 4-1, with a personal four-game losing streak to the Hoosiers. Their hopes rest with guards Kenneth Lowe and Willie Deane, a bench that goes 11 deep, and a fiery Gene Keady.

The stakes are high in this matchup for Purdue. The Boilermakers have virtually fallen completely off the national radar since its Elite Eight loss in 2000. The Hoosiers, meanwhile, have launched to the top of the national consciousness with its NCAA Final appearance last season and its subsequent fast start. Furthermore, Purdue has lost four straight in this series, and is flirting with the possibility of IU fans pointing to Kentucky as their most competitive and important rival.

Beyond this season, these two large public schools are playing for top honors in the state. Purdue is scraping for any media attention it can get, as it is badly jealous of the trail of cameras and scribes relentlessly following around Mike Davis’ crew. Indiana needs the game to further distance itself from the Bob Knight fiasco by cementing its claim as the best hoops program in Indiana.

Marquette and Wisconsin

Wisconsin and Marquette have a strange basketball rivalry. While Marquette has unquestionably had more success throughout its program’s history, it still enters this game as the state school’s little brother. There is absolutely no question that Wisconsin at Madison is the beloved team of the Cheese State. At Wisconsin hospitals when your child is born, they cut off the umbilical cord, wipe him/her off and present you with a Badgers sweatshirt.

This particular game pits two teams and programs on the rise. Since Wisconsin made its surprise run to the 2000 Final Four, it has maintained a high-level of play. The Badgers even earned a share of the Big Ten title last season under first-year head coach Bo Ryan. With the majority of that team returning, the Badgers have some large expectations to fill. They started off the season quick, before dropping a game to Wake Forest in Madison in the ACC/Big Ten challenge. The Badgers feature a savvy scorer in Kirk Penney and quick guard play with Devin Harris and Freddie Owens.

Marquette is coming off one of its best seasons in more than two decades. The Golden Eagles (or Warriors as many in the student body and alumni base still call them) finished with a 26-7 record last season. The team’s unquestioned star is Dwayne Wade, a scorer with more fast-twitch muscle fiber than Carl Lewis. Marquette has started 5-1 with its lone loss coming on the road to a solid Notre Dame team.

At stake in this game is respect for the Marquette program. The Golden Eagles, despite its good 2001-2002 season, still have not earned the Badgers’ respect. Marquette’s 86-73 loss to Wisconsin last year allowed Badger fans to label the Golden Eagles as just a team rolling up a good record in an inferior conference. And Marquette’s loss in the first round of the NCAA tournament solidified that in many people’s minds. Marquette is out to prove that it’s the best team in the state and worthy of its lofty national ranking.

Furthermore, this rivalry pits public against private. Wisconsin’s student body is predominantly represented by state of Wisconsin residents, while Marquette boasts of a much more nationwide enrollment. The normal stigmas apply, with the Golden Eagles being labeled as the “prissy rich kid” school and the Badgers as the “generic state school.” See That 70’s show reruns for reference.

DePaul and Notre Dame

Notre Dame and DePaul’s basketball rivalry was at its best in the Disco 70s, which makes for some nice highlights of Digger Phelps in lime green suits. Prior to that, neither was considered much of a basketball powerhouse, and truthfully, following Phelps and Ray Meyers’ respective careers, neither school has had much success.

The past two seasons have been good to the Fighting Irish, who have qualified for the NCAA tournament both years. This season is off to an especially good start, with Notre Dame ranked in the Associated Press’ Top 10. Point guard Chris Thomas and Maryland transfer Dan Miller have sparked the Fighting Irish to their 8-1 record. This is a team that can be deadly from the perimeter.

DePaul, meanwhile, had been languishing under the direction of Pat Kennedy, who has since left the school for the greener pastures of Montana. Under Kennedy, the Demons were never short on talent, but lacked everything else, including discipline, a quality game plan and effort. Now, under former Connecticut assistant Dave Leitao, DePaul is off to a 4-0 start, and are displaying much more effort and passion for defense. Junior college transfer Delonte Holland and senior forward Sam Hoskin paces the Blue Demons. Neither player entered DePaul with much fanfare, much different than recent underachieving stars Quentin Richardson, Lance Williams and Paul McPherson. DePaul is more with less this season.

It is easy to dislike Notre Dame, with its plush northwest Indiana campus, its national appeal and its holier-than-thou self-promoting reputation. DePaul, aside from its solid academic reputation, is everything Notre Dame is not. It is located in a major urban area, sports a mostly local enrollment (some of which are commuters), and although private and catholic, does not overtly promote either. If they were two kids in high school, they would not be friends. DePaul is using this game to make its first step towards regaining the national respect it had two decades ago. Notre Dame is doing the same, although winning this game would not vault the Fighting Irish any higher, but losing it may cost them nearly everything they have gained in the eyes of the college basketball public. And you can be sure that DePaul knows that.

This Saturday will be full of face-paint and signs, scribbling local journalists and special TV spots, beer-drinking bar parties and acid-tongued trash talk. This is a rivalry weekend placed amidst the dull light of non-conference basketball action and the bright shine of Holiday cheer. And as any fan of any rivalry knows, there’s nothing better than what is on the line – bragging rights.


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