It’s been two years since No. 1 Indiana and unranked Butler met in Bankers Life Fieldhouse for the Crossroads Classic, when a pesky Butler team hit almost half of its three-point attempts and knocked off the previously unbeaten Hoosiers in overtime thanks to a runner from walk-on point guard Alex Barlow.
A lot has changed in two years. Only seven players who played in the teams’ December 2012 meeting still play for their respective universities, which doesn’t include former Hoosier Austin Etherington, who transferred to Butler in the offseason. Butler has changed head coaches twice — from Brad Stevens to Brandon Miller to Chris Holtmann — and conferences once.
But what hasn’t changed is the challenge that the Crossroads Classic presents to all four of its participants.
“The bottom line is every time you’re in it, you’re playing a very tough opponent,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said Friday. “That’s what’s most important. That’s what’s most challenging.”
The script has been flipped from Dec. 15, 2012; this time unranked Indiana (8-2) gets a chance to upset No. 23 Butler (8-2). It will be the Hoosiers’ third game against a ranked opponent this season and their second time playing away from Assembly Hall.
With final exams in Indiana’s rearview mirror, Crean & Co. hope to carry over their success in the classroom to their play on the court.
“We’ve had a productive week hopefully in the sense we’ve been able to get some rest and get energized,” Crean said. “The residual effect is they’re a little more rested when they practice and play because it’s a little bit more exciting when they are there than the drudgery of the long days because they’re spending so much time on their schoolwork, preparing for the exams.”
Crean said initial film studies of the team’s best non-conference opponents — SMU, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Butler and Georgetown — began in the summer. The Hoosiers then reviewed the film in the fall before the season started and built upon their specific game plans once the season started.
Butler’s film and advanced statistics show that the Bulldogs are a strong rebounding team and they’re among the most efficient defenses in the country on a per-possession basis.
Unlike Indiana, Butler isn’t littered with former four- and five-star recruits, but that doesn’t hinder the Bulldogs’ execution on defense or relentlessness on the boards. With only one player taller than 6-foot-8, Butler has comparable height to Indiana, but the Bulldogs make up for a potential lack in size with physicality in their box outs.
“They’re very aggressive on the glass,” Crean said. “They’re going to create a lot of contact when they go to the glass. If you’re not prepared for it, you’ll end up three, four, five feet from where you started.”
Butler’s best rebounding performance of the season came in the Battle 4 Atlantis, when the Bulldogs out-hustled and out-muscled No. 5 North Carolina on the boards to the tune of a 57-40 rebounding advantage en route to an eight-point win. Butler interim head coach Chris Holtman’s team had 29 offensive rebounds against the Tar Heels, a facet of the game that could be an issue for an Indiana team that is 275th in the country in defensive rebounding percentage.
Crean said the Hoosiers will have to be committed to boxing out because Butler’s forwards and wings crash the boards every time a shot is taken.
“Where they’ve had big numbers offensive rebounding-wise, it didn’t appear to me the opponent was committed to blocking them out,” he said. “No question about it, rebounding will be a huge factor in the game tomorrow. No matter who wins it, that number is going to probably have a lot to do with it.”
Saturday’s matchup will feature the clash of contrasting styles of play. Indiana is at its best when it turns the game into a track meet and its top-10 offense can rain three-pointers on opposing defenses. While the Bulldogs have won games scoring in the 60s and the 90s, they prefer a slower tempo that allows their top-20 defense and physical rebounding to win games.
On offense, point-forward Roosevelt Jones and sharpshooter Kellen Dunham lead the way for the Bulldogs.
“It’s very hard to put anybody out there because of that size and the way that he plays,” Crean said of Jones. “When he’s able to drop his shoulder, he’s really going to a runner, a floater type of shot. You just have to be very efficient, stay in front of him, not give him any angles, and at the same time you got to block him out.”
Crean said the Hoosiers didn’t do a very good job slowing him down two years ago and Indiana will have the chance to get revenge on Jones and Butler Saturday afternoon when the state’s top college basketball talent is showcased in Indianapolis.
“We have a lot of respect for Butler, a lot of respect for how they play,” he said. “I think our guys are excited to go in for that challenge and play in that environment.”