WEST LAFAYETTE – Purdue found its way defensively against Butler on Saturday at the Crossroads Classic. Coach Matt Painter, who had been unimpressed by his team's performances on that end of the floor most of the season, deemed the Boilermakers "sharp" and "aware" against the Bulldogs and that focus showed on the stat sheet: Butler shot just 32% and 4 for 28 from 3-point range.
Butler isn't a particularly good offensive team and there will be more difficult challenges ahead for the Boilermakers, but it's unlikely tonight's opponent, Incarnate Word of the Southland Conference, falls in that category. The Cardinals are fresh off shooting less than 29% from the floor in an 85-55 loss to Rice, which is not exactly a defensive powerhouse in its own right. Incarnate Word is unlikely to push the Boilermakers much, but tonight's matchup is one of only two more chances (Purdue also plays Nicholls on Dec. 29) to really hone their understanding of their defensive roles and assignments before they enter Big Ten play and face dangerous offensive players every single night. Purdue probably won't be in danger of losing at Mackey Arena tonight, but Painter will absolutely have thoughts after the game on whether his team matched its performance against Butler or whether it relaxed and gave the Cardinals some easy baskets with defensive breakdowns. Purdue will need to play defense at the level it did against Butler in order to be a true Final Four contender, so it would be encouraging to see the Boilers start stringing solid outings together.
Painter's question all season has been how Purdue will fare if shots aren't falling. The Boilermakers struggled when that happened against Rutgers and NC State and they resumed their offensive dominance when they faced the Bulldogs on Saturday, so they weren't able to pair their stellar defensive play with a grind-it-out offensive game. It's unlikely Purdue will miss many shots tonight, either. Cardinals opponents are hitting 41.1% from 3-point range, the third-worst mark in the country, and that's with a pair of non-Division I opponents thrown in. Purdue's offense should roll tonight, but it will once again be a chance for the Boilermakers to demonstrate focus and make crisp offensive plays.
The matchup could present the perfect opportunity for redshirt sophomore guard Brandon Newman to break out of his current slump. Prior to the game against Butler, Painter had some very pointed of criticism of the sharpshooter's shot selection in recent games and warned Newman might lose minutes if he doesn't start making better decisions. The former Valparaiso high school star improved in that regard against the Bulldogs, but he still went 0 for 4 from the field and fouled out of the game. He's a talented player – he scored 29 points in a win over Minnesota last season – but he is just 2 for 17 from 3-point range over his last four games and he's shooting only 32.7% from the arc this season after posting a 37.9% mark in 2020-21. It would be good for the Boilermakers to feed Newman tonight and let him see a few rip through the net.
We could also get further clarity on Purdue's power forward rotation and how it will work in Big Ten play. I wrote before the game against Butler that Fort Wayne native Caleb Furst's minutes might start to get squeezed somewhat with Mason Gillis and Ethan Morton also getting minutes at the 4. Against Butler, however, Morton actually got most of his minutes at the 2 in place of Newman, which is a new development. Morton isn't the same kind of shooter Newman is, but he is better ball-handler and his court vision is very advanced. Purdue has struggled with pressure this season and it might not be the worst idea to get another ball-handler on the court next to Eric Hunter Jr. or Isaiah Thompson. Morton could be that guy and if Newman is going to lose minutes it might be to the sophomore from Pennsylvania. That leaves Furst and Gillis free to split minutes at the 4 and keep one another fresh to crash the glass, which is the most important role for both of them. Then again, this could all change if Newman comes out and buries five 3s in rhythm tonight.
Purdue should beat the Cardinals without much fuss, but Painter will likely be more focused on the finer details of his team's performance. The Boilermakers glimpsed their ceiling Saturday against Butler and a great team would be motivated to follow that performance with another lockdown defensive effort. A merely good team might get a little complacent against a lesser opponent before Christmas. Which type is Purdue? The Boilers are still figuring it out.