The Journal Gazette
Saturday, December 18, 2021 11:20 am

Crossroads Classic Pregame: No. 3 Purdue (9-1) vs. Butler (7-3)

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – Purdue has not played well in the Crossroads Classic – the Boilermakers are an event-worst 3-7, including 1-4 against Butler, this year's opponent – but that doesn't mean it's happy to see the annual Indiana basketball showcase go away.

Boilers coach Matt Painter bemoaned the loss of the Crossroads Classic this week and admitted the event's demise does not make much sense to him (the explanation is really fairly obvious: Butler and Notre Dame are a no longer premier programs as they were when the event was conceived a decade ago). Though Painter wishes the Hoosier State basketball extravaganza could continue, his team has a chance to end the event's 11-year run with a victory and in  doing so secure a more fond memory of the Classic in the minds of its fans than the last decade of experiences playing in it would suggest. 

To finish off their Crossroads Classic tenure with a victory, the third-ranked Boilermakers, who slipped from the No. 1 slot after a loss to Rutgers on Dec. 9, will have to play far better than they have in recent games. The Boilers not only lost to the Scarlet Knights as a heavy favorite, but were nearly upset again by a pretty mediocre NC State team, falling behind by as many as 13 before rallying in the final minutes and dominating overtime to escape with a win. Purdue has gotten off to rough starts in each of its last two games and guard Sasha Stefanovic admitted after the skin-of-their teeth win over the Wolfpack the Boilers hadn't been ready to play at the outset. Having more energy (and defensive intensity, specifically) to open the game has been a point of emphasis for the Boilermakers and they'll likely try to get off to a hot start. 

Butler, conversely, will try to slow the ball down. The Bulldogs try to shorten games by limiting possessions and they'll attempt to counteract any energy Purdue brings in the early minutes with methodical offensive pacing and disciplined defense. The Bulldogs are holding opponents to just 28.4% shooting from 3-point range and the Boilermakers have struggled to shoot from the outside somewhat in recent games. Painter isn't particularly bothered by that development, because he really wants to see his team wins games when it isn't shooting well, a theme on which he has been harping all season. Still, Butler's path to an upset probably goes through holding Purdue down from the outside. When the Bulldogs beat a talented Oklahoma team Dec. 7, they did it by holding the Sooners to a 9-for-31 performance from 3-point range. 

Butler also got 26 points off the bench from sophomore Chuck Harris in that win over the Sooners, which encapsulates the other manner in which Butler could emerge with its fourth top 10 win in the Crossroads Classic: one of its six players scoring between 6.5 and 12 points per contest could explode for 25. The Bulldogs have a variety of weapons and have gotten standout performances from so many different players in different games this season, Painter said it has made game-planning difficult. Harris leads the Bulldogs at 11.6 points per contest, while Aaron Thompson is the team's top playmaker with 4.6 assists and 1.3 steals per game. 

A significant question for Purdue is how Painter handles minutes at the 4. Ethan Morton has carved out a role guarding stretch-4 types in recent games and Mason Gillis has excelled at bringing effort and energy on the glass, which lifted the Boilermakers against NC State especially. Those two grabbing most of the power forward minutes doesn't leave much left over for Fort Wayne native Caleb Furst, who was getting most of the time at that spot earlier in the season. Furst, a Blackhawk Christian graduate, has played only 21 minutes over the last two games after playing no fewer than 21 in any of Purdue's first eight contests. The Boilermakers really like Furst's energy and ability to stretch the floor, but his perimeter defense remains a work in progress (he played center all of high school after all) and his role might be getting squeezed somewhat. His most important task going forward could be excelling in short spurts against bigger 4s in the high post.

This is an important game for Purdue. The Boilermakers looked mortal for the first time last week and their defense was exposed somewhat, as Painter had been warning it might be. Butler isn't a particularly strong offensive team and putting together a true shutdown defensive performance might give the Boilers a confidence boost as it prepares to return to Big Ten play.

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