Thursday, January 18, 2018

A Trip To Indiana, Part 1

Matt Painter's third-ranked Purdue Boilermakers had just dispatched Wisconsin 78-60 Tuesday night, and now he was walking off the court, up the ramp, towards his lockerroom.

Of the nearly 15,000 people in Mackey Arena, presumably only one thought the game on the court was very similar to the Princeton-Cornell game played three days earlier. As Painter left the court, he walked past that one person - TigerBlog. Upon seeing him, Painter stopped and said "it's nice to see you," with a big, friendly smile on his face.

TigerBlog has never met Matt Painter. It's likely that Painter either mistook TB for someone else - though TB was also presumably the only one of the nearly 15,000 there who had been wearing a Princeton Lacrosse sweatshirt - or in the moment after his team looked wildly impressive in winning its 14th straight he would have greeted anyone who happened to be standing there.

Purdue University is located in West Lafayette, Indiana, across the Wabash River from Lafayette. TigerBlog is in Indianapolis as part of the NCAA's annual convention.

And what does someone like TB do when he knows he'll have a free Tuesday night in January in Indiana? He looks for a college basketball game to attend.

Actually his first choice would have been the Indiana Pacers, but the NBA team is away now. That didn't stop him from texting his old Princeton Athletics colleague and friend Ryan Yurko, who works on the Pacers' business operations side.

As he got off the plane, TB asked Yurko if he was free for lunch. Yurko's response was yes, but he wasn't in New Jersey.

Anyway, about an hour later, TB and Yurko were eating macaroni and cheese with chicken, mushrooms and bacon at a restaurant that was two blocks from TB's hotel and two blocks from Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the Pacers' arena and home of Yurko's office.

After lunch, Yurko gave TB a tour of the building. It was good to see Yurko. TB has written about him before, and the word he uses to best describe him is "amiable."

When he saw the Pacers were on the road, TB looked around for a good college game. He saw that Purdue was home, and he checked to see how far it was from Indianapolis to the campus that produced, among others, Neil Armstrong, Chesley Sullenberger (the captain of the plane that successfully ditched in the Hudson River) and Jerry Ross, another astronaut who 1) flew more shuttle missions than any other astronaut and 2) was honored at the game Tuesday night. The list of alums who have made their mark in the sports world, by the way, is also impressive.

When he found out it was just over an hour to get there, TB emailed Chris Forman, the men's basketball contact at Purdue and someone TB had never met, to see if Chris would leave him a pass. Chris responded that of course he would and left him a credential and a parking pass in the media lot, which turns out is located essentially in the end zone of the football stadium.

It wasn't until TigerBlog he knew he was going to the game that he checked and saw that Purdue was ranked third. And hadn't lost in awhile.

TigerBlog pulled into West Lafayette a little after 5, two hours before the opening tip. He didn't mind. He wanted to look around and see what went into a gamenight there.

Prior to Tuesday, TigerBlog had been to basketball games at Indiana, Michigan State, Illinois and Penn State of the Big Ten, not to mention Maryland and obviously Rutgers prior to when they were in the league. This, though, would be his first experience with a Big Ten regular season league game, or any Power Five regular season league game, for that matter.

As he snooped here and there, TB drew the attention of a man who came over to him and asked who he was and what he was doing. He seemed a tad suspicious. Once TB explained the situation, the man - Tom - said that he was a local police officer who also is in charge of security at basketball games. He then proceeded to tell TB that he'd show him around, give him the sense of what Purdue basketball was like.

He couldn't have been nicer. Then again, neither could anyone else TB met there. He had a seat in the press section, located at midcourt on the concourse level, where he watched the scene unfold while he ate his brisket nachos (highly, highly recommended - though not exactly the healthiest day of eating he's ever had). From there he could see all of the great in-game traditions, from the introductions with the lights out through the different cheers through the way the band's sound poured all over the arena. He was curious about what the promotions would be during media timeouts, but they were mostly about honoring individuals and teams - from a space shuttle astronaut to a football team that just won a bowl game to the recently crowned cheerleading national champs.

He also saw how good Purdue is. The Boilermakers ran out to a 12-0 start by draining four straight three-pointers, and the game was never close. It was sort of like Princeton-Cornell, where Princeton got out to a 19-0 lead, whereas this one was 17-2, and neither game was every close after that. Also the home fans loved both games.

Purdue was sharp on offense. It was smothering on defense. It was a game, TB supposes, that Princeton head coaches Mitch Henderson and Courtney Banghart would have loved.

Purdue swarmed to the ball without fouling much. No pass was easy. No shot was uncontested. Wisconsin, a team that averaged 11 turnovers a game, turned it over 20 against Purdue. The best part of the game wasn't one of the dunks or three-pointers. It was when 7-3 freshman center Matt Haarms had consecutive blocked shots near the basket on one possession and then let out an exalted scream that got the crowd even more fired up.

As TB watched, his thoughts were also about how Princeton's best players would fit in with Purdue. Especially the one who is an Indiana native, Devin Cannady.

The answer, TB thinks, is very, very well. Cannady obviously can shoot threes. He would do well with the pace. Like Purdue's starting guards, Cannady isn't huge, but he is also a tenacious defender like he is, and, with Haarms and another seven-footer on the back end of the defense, he would contest and harass the other team as it crossed midcourt and get the kinds of steals that Purdue did.

TigerBlog has always like doing what he did Tuesday night, ever since he's been at Princeton. He's loved the chance to go to places he otherwise never would, to see how other schools approach their athletic programs and put on their events.

He's stumbled onto some great places along the way. Lafayette, Louisiana, was one of them. Now he can add West Lafayette to that list.

He absolutely loved his experience at Purdue. He can't say enough good things about the people he met there.

He'd love to see a Princeton-Purdue game, maybe in the second round of the NCAA tournament in two months. That would be awesome.

Yes, he'd root for Princeton in that game. Short of that, though, he wants to see his new favorite team, the Purdue Boilermakers, win it all.

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