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Anticipation rises to a boil

Andrew Soukup | Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Notre Dame students come to South Bend from across the nation, often with little appreciation for in-state rivalries.So when Irish coach Mike Brey calls tonight’s first-round NIT game against Purdue Notre Dame’s biggest home game of the season, he’s not just referring to the fact that a loss means Notre Dame’s season is over.He knows that among Indiana fans, in-state rivalries can generate as much energy as Final Four games.”We’ve had arguably maybe the best home regular season schedule in the history of our program if you talk to some of our long-time season ticket holders,” he said. “I don’t think there is a bigger game in the regular season than this one when you talk to the community.”Then again, that’s to be expected from two schools that sit 100 miles apart but haven’t played in 38 years. It’s been so long between meetings that the last time Notre Dame and Purdue met, the 3-point line didn’t exist and national television games were a rarity.Purdue coach Gene Keady blames former Irish coach Digger Phelps for stopping the rivalry. When Phelps arrived at Notre Dame seeking to turn it into a national power, he phased out Notre Dame’s traditional Midwestern opponents in favor of a more high-profile national schedule.Years passed between meetings. When Keady arrived at Purdue in 1980, he brought the philosophy that the Boilermakers should play every team in the state. But Notre Dame and its national schedule made meetings between the two difficult.When Brey arrived at Notre Dame three years ago, fans clamored for him to restore traditional rivalries against DePaul, Marquette and UCLA. But only a few – including his mother, who is a Purdue graduate – asked about the Boilermakers.Brey eventually opened communication with Purdue, but Keady refused to renew a series unless the Irish played their first game in West Lafayette because the last meeting between the two schools took place in South Bend. But the Irish, already burdened with difficult schedules, were reluctant to add another tough road game. “It’s not being selfish, but making sure you have the right amount of home games in the rotation of your schedule,” Brey said, “and you don’t play on the road for six straight weeks like we did during my second year.”Fortunately for those who wanted to see an Irish-Boilermaker game, the NIT took care of any leftover issues. The result is a game that has an NCAA Tour-nament feel.”It’s going to have such a great fan base not only from our fans, but their fans,” Torrian Jones said. “It’s going to give a tournament-type atmosphere.”Brey is confident the Irish have shrugged off any lingering disappointment about not playing in the NCAA Tournament. And while many bubble teams who fall to the NIT struggle in the first round, Brey believes that Notre Dame’s 7-3 stretch to end the season is an indicator of the high-caliber basketball the Irish are playing.”Our seniors have played so well for us, they don’t want basketball to end,” Brey said. “And our young guys, I think it’s important for this young nucleus that’s coming back to keep playing as long as we can play.”Of course, it doesn’t hurt to play in a game local fans have been clamoring to watch for years.”There will be a lot of hype around the game and the atmosphere will be great,” said Chris Thomas, an Indianapolis native. “Hopefully we can give a good show.”