Before the senior guard transferred to IU from Georgetown, Rivers said he was admittedly a novice when it came to college hoops history. As far as he was concerned, West Lafayette was located in North Carolina.
Now, before he plays his final regular season game against the No. 8 Boilermakers at 8:30 p.m. today in Assembly Hall, Rivers said he understands the magnitude of the cross-state rivalry.
“I didn’t know anything about college basketball, so coming here and seeing how intense a rivalry it is, it’s the most intense rivalry I’ve ever been a part of in college basketball,” Rivers said. “Fans come up to you, and their one wish for the whole year — Christmas wish, birthday wish — is please beat Purdue.”
The Hoosiers couldn’t deliver that wish in their last meeting, falling to Purdue 67-53 on Feb. 8. IU was without leading scorer Christian Watford, though, and IU coach Tom Crean said having the sophomore forward in the lineup will create better matchups in the post.
But it hasn’t been a seamless transition in the two games Watford’s played since a hand injury forced him to miss three games earlier this month.
He has combined for 25 points against Michigan and Northwestern — both losses — while committing four fouls in each game.
Yet it’s been his five combined rebounds in that stretch that have drawn the ire of Crean.
“He’s got to rebound it, and certainly that has not been anything that he has done yet coming back from that injury,” Crean said. “It’s time tomorrow night to establish that and get rebounds.”
Crean added that Watford needs to defend better, a task made all the more difficult by Purdue senior forward JaJuan Johnson.
Johnson is second in the Big Ten in scoring at 20.4 points per game and scored 15 points in the first matchup with IU.
Rivers, who Crean dubbed the Hoosiers’ defensive captain, said having Watford go toe-to-toe with Johnson could provide the lift needed to pull off the upset.
“The biggest emphasis for me is making sure he’s committed on defense for the whole entire team because at the end of the day, he’ll be an X-factor if he can contribute in that area,” Rivers said. “I know he will. I know he’s ready.”
Purdue’s other senior, guard E’Twaun Moore, might be entering Wednesday as the hottest player in the conference. In a victory against No. 2 Ohio State on Sunday, Moore scorched the Buckeyes for 38 points on 72 percent shooting.
“The zone he was in the other day, he could have easily been on the West Coast in that NBA All-Star game the way he was shooting the ball,” Crean said of Moore’s performance. “He was high-level. And they kept putting different people on him, and it just didn’t matter. I don’t think it would have mattered with anybody that day.”
The Hoosiers, one game removed from their third sellout of the season, are expecting another raucous crowd today. Students with seats in the general admission section were already camping outside of Assembly Hall on Tuesday.
IU has dropped its last two home games — both sellouts as well — and Crean said there is a sense of playing for more than the team when the stadium is packed.
“I think when they lose a game at home like they have in those two games, they feel like they let people down,” he said. “Kids aren’t always going to say that, but I think they get that feeling. I know I have it. I think they realize this is a pretty special deal at Indiana.”
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