Lately, I've been doing some reading.
One of the books that I've picked up recently (in a vain effort to convince myself that I can still read at an 8th grade level) is a novel by George Saunders called Lincoln in the Bardo. It is a deeply weird meditation on grief and longing involving ghosts, fake historical citations, and a poorly-tended cemetery. I liked it a lot, but my favorite bit is as you follow a priest through the judgement of heaven.
Instead of a "way to go, champ!" and a high-five from a dude with a harp and a halo, the priest finds his heart literally being torn out of his chest, Mola Ram style, weighed on a scale, and then some strange light beings bonk heads with him and vomit into a bowl and yell.
And the reaction from the priest is basically "okay, I expected something, but not that."
I can relate.
I don't know how or why the Purdue Boilermakers, of all teams, gets to seemingly be perhaps not the arbiter, but definitely an arbiter of what constitutes a successful football or men's basketball season for the Ohio State Buckeyes.
This is a team that, prior to 2015, had gone 6-24 on the hardcourt in their previous 30 games against the Buckeyes men's basketball squad. This is a team that has had great conference success, but has only managed to win the Big Ten Tournament once. This is a team that has an all-time winning record against every Big Ten team except Ohio State.
The Purdue Boilermakers have, for the past several seasons, held the Sword of Damocles over the heads of the Buckeyes.
Moreso in football, where a single loss can have huge implications for the postseason, but in basketball they've also been a consistent barometer of just how talented the Buckeyes are and what the March prospects are for our favorite team.
I don't really want to talk about how this shakes out in football, because a) you already know, b) I'm fragile and the pain of memory is too much for me to take, and c) it suffices to say that the Buckeyes are 3-3 in their last six meetings against the Boilermakers in both major revenue sports, and we can leave it at that.
What's interesting in basketball is that in the 2014-15 season, Ohio State split the two games they played against Purdue. That D'Angelo Russell-led team got two games into March Madness and bowed out, but that wasn't too bad for a squad that also gave Marc Loving about 24 minutes of playing time a game. That same season Purdue lost to the Bearcats in their opening round game. Advantage, Ohio State.
In 2015-16 Purdue and Ohio State played once, and the Boilermakers pulled out a win. Neither team was all that great that season, but West Lafayette went dancing and Columbus did whatever the NIT version of dancing is (bobbing your head along to Bob Seger and biting your lower lip).
2016-17? Another loss to Purdue. Two months later the Buckeyes would be ending their season with a loss to freaking Rutgers in the Big Ten tourney, Thad Matta would be on his way out the door, and Matt Painter and company would be skipping all the way to the Sweet Sixteen, which is where they ended up last season, despite a close loss to the Buckeyes (who also made the NCAA Tournament). That game, by the way, was super kickass and featured a Keita Bates-Diop tip-in in the last few seconds to seal the victory.
Ohio State is probably going to be in March Madness this season, mostly because of a down year for Power 5 conferences in general and a resume-building win against Iowa. Assuming they take care of Northwestern on Wednesday, the Buckeyes should be good enough in the eyes of the committee to take their show on the road, rendering what happens against Purdue tomorrow somewhat moot.
Still, I'm fascinated about what might turn out as a result of that game. Not just because I'm incredibly indignant that the Boilermakers have had a dramatic influence on the fortunes of Ohio State sports in general over the last few years, but also because they're a predictably quality team led by a steady coach and decent talent. They aren't as mercrucial as Iowa, not as consistently dangerous as Michigan or Michigan State, and not quite as boring as Wisconsin.
Nope, they're Purdue: a team with an inexplicably outsized say in how we feel about the outcome of a football or basketball season. It's weird and unlikely and nonsensical, but in my bones I know that if Chris Holtmann and company can pass safely under the blank, terrifying stare of Purdue Pete on Saturday, it'll be a huge part of why I'll consider the 2018-19 men's basketball season a success.