The Journal Gazette
Saturday, December 18, 2021 9:00 pm

Purdue finds defensive identity in Crossroads drubbing

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

Almost everyone agrees Purdue is one of the best teams in the country. But the third-ranked Boilermakers have had only two games all season against quality competition in which they have put together a complete performances. One was against Florida State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, a 28-point blowout that saw Purdue scratch its ceiling for the first time. The other was today against Butler.

The Boilermakers ripped the Bulldogs apart in the final installment of the Crossroads Classic, winning 77-48 and turning in dominant performances on both ends of the floor. Purdue shot 53% from the field, went 11 of 22 from 3-point range, including 6 for 6 Jaden Ivey in a monster day for the sophomore, and scored 1.4 points per possession. Those are impressive numbers, but Purdue has posted impressive offensive metrics much of the season. Too often, those performances have been necessary to paper over defensive weaknesses.

That was far from the case this afternoon. The Boilermakers were every bit as good on the defensive end, holding Butler to 32% shooting and 4 for 28 from 3-point range. They played on the proverbial string almost all afternoon and the breakdowns coach Matt Painter has bemoaned much of the season were few and far between. After weeks of playing what Painter called "just okay" defense, Purdue played the way it needs to on that end of the court if it truly aspires to Final Four contention.

"It was very important," Ivey said of his team's stellar defensive execution. "Just coming off last week, we didn't bring a physical presence on defense (against Rutgers and NC State). Today, we just brought it and we're going to need that going into the Big Ten, because those Big Ten games are tough, especially on the road. We've just gotta be high and tight defensively."

Butler had two separate stretches of eight misses in a row and it was 0 for 9 from 3-point range after halftime. The game was essentially over less than four minutes into the second half, when Sasha Stefanovic buried a 3 to extend Purdue's lead to 25. The victory will help erase a significant amount of Crossroads Classic heartbreak for the Boilermakers (they went 4-7 in the event overall, but won their last two matchups) and give them some good memories to take away from the showcase as it comes to an end. Painter is very unhappy the Classic will no longer be played.

"This has been fabulous; why it's going away makes no sense to me," the 17th-year Purdue coach said. "(Notre Dame and Butler) have been great opponents for us and we've been on the short end of those games more times than not, but it's helped our program and it's helped us get ready for the Big Ten and it's helped us get ready for the NCAA Tournament and that's what it's all about."

Painter made a lineup change today, inserting Trevion Williams in place of Zach Edey at center and bringing the 7-foot-4 sophomore off the bench. The move was partially in recognition of Williams' outstanding play in recent weeks and partially a reflection of Purdue's struggles to start games strong. The decision worked as desired, with Williams scoring twice from in close in the early going to stake Purdue to a quick lead, but it was Edey who provided the bulk of the interior intimidation for the Boilermakers, scoring 14 points, grabbing 11 rebounds and blocking two shots. Most teams have few answers for a player as big and coordinated as Edey, but Butler had none.

"Trevion's competitive spirit got us over the hump (against NC State) and he's been doing that all season," Painter said. "He really handled not starting and did a great job, was professional about it. And I thought Zach was professional about it (today). I just try to be honest and try to be fair with guys, but we've got 10 guys who can start for us, so (starting) is not the big deal. They want to finish more than anything. Zach's done a really good job for us, but he's had some struggles starting the game."

Purdue's big win over Florida State was great at the time and an indication of how good this team can be, but it came on the heels of huge wins over North Carolina and Villanova. Today, the Boilermakers turned in a complete game after two rough outings. It was always likely they would right the ship offensively – this team is too good to struggle shooting for long – but it was the ability to pair a renewed efficiency on offense with a physical, tough mentality on defense that should excite Boilermaker fans. Although Butler was missing some important pieces – leading scorer Chuck Harris, who had 26 points in a win over Oklahoma, among them – it likely wouldn't have mattered much if the Bulldogs were at full strength. Purdue's defense was too disciplined and together to give up much of anything against anyone. 

"Purdue is a really good team and they played really well," Butler coach LaVall Jordan said.

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