INDIANAPOLIS — Everyone was on their feet and duly applauding, but Roosevelt Jones wanted a little more. So Butler’s singular senior forward waved both arms up and down, egging on the Bankers Life Fieldhouse crowd, smiling wide at everyone and everything: The win, who it arrived against, and the way the Bulldogs managed to scrape it out.
A 74–68 victory over Purdue hung the first loss of the season on the No. 9 team in the nation and its supersized lineup. But the significance extended far beyond a mini-upset sprung by the No. 17 Bulldogs in the second game of the Crossroads Classic. Here are three thoughts on what happened and where these two contenders go:
Butler won in the one way it hadn’t won
Bulldogs coach Chris Holtmann noted after the game that Kellen Dunham, the team’s sharpshooting leading scorer at 19.1 points per game, was as happy as anyone about the result. “I looked at his stats and he was 0 for 12,” Holtmann said. “I didn’t know that.” His point was that only the win mattered to Dunham, but the larger meaning of the day was Butler winning when offense didn’t come easy to hardly anyone.
The Bulldogs entered the game with the sixth-most efficient offense in the country, per kenpom.com. They scored 144 points in the season opener against the Citadel and at least 74 points in every game since then, cracking 90 three other times. And they shot 39.7% for the game against the Boilermakers, missing 12 of 16 attempts from three-point range on the evening, while Dunham endured as epic a struggle as he has in his career. (At one point in the second half, he hustled to make a defensive deflection and then broke up court for an outlet pass…and then missed a challenged layup attempt. It was that sort of night.)
Some of this was to be expected. Purdue came in with the nation’s most efficient defense. It was never going to be easy. But winning while it was never easy was a big step that Holtmann hoped his team would take before Big East play began. “I had this somewhat in mind,” the Butler coach said. “I don’t know if it was an aesthetically pleasing game all the time, but it was a gritty effort by our guys.”
Purdue won’t contend for a Big Ten title without actually taking advantage of its main offensive advantage
With an elite perimeter defender like Rapheal Davis and two 7-footers in Isaac Haas and A.J. Hammons, one suspects that the Boilermakers’ defense will hold up all season long. This should not be a worry. What is concerning: A relatively undersized team like Butler that dispatched no one taller than 6'7" for any discernible amount of time—6'10" Nate Fowler logged all of three minutes—neutralized the edge that Hammons and Haas give Purdue in the post. Haas, who came in averaging 13.5 points per game, shot just 2 of 7 from the floor.
Hammons rebounded to a 12-point night after playing just five minutes in the first half due to foul trouble, basically matching his scoring average, but he was too quiet given the mismatch. Butler, in fact, scored more points in the paint: 34 to Purdue’s 26.
“We had to be more patient,” coach Matt Painter said. “You just have to be fundamentally sound when you’re that big. But they didn’t really do anything different than what we expected. You just have to be patient, you have to take care of the basketball, you have to give yourself a chance. That means having a longer offensive possession. Our guys were trying to go for the kill.
“Look at our size and look at their team, and they had more points in the paint. They understood how to manufacture some points and get some things done, where we had to show more patience and discipline.”
Freshman Caleb Swanigan produced a percussive line of 25 points and 11 boards, and that sort of substantial effort bodes very well for conference play. But a similar disappearing act from the other big men won’t get the Boilermakers anywhere against Vanderbilt on Tuesday, for starters, and it certainly won’t help them assert themselves as a top 3 team in the wobbly Big Ten. This may have been an aberration, but Haas and Hammons must take pains to ensure that’s so.
Don’t ignore the Butler Way
Two days before the Crossroads Classic, Notre Dame coach Mike Brey made a contention that rankled everyone in the Hoosier State. “We’re the most consistent program in this state,” the Irish coach said, “and it’s not even close.”
Brey is a smart guy and a proud guy, and he surely knew what he was saying. And perhaps getting a little rise out of everyone was what he intended, if only for the fun of it. But the comment was subsequently relayed to Holtmann after Saturday’s game. And the Butler coach was put on the spot for a reaction. Judging by his expression, Holtmann might have preferred to chug a gallon of motor oil than weigh in on this.
“Oh man,” he said.
But when the Bulldogs coach finally conjured an answer, it didn’t disappoint.
“Well, listen, I want to handle this the right way,” Holtmann said. “And I am just a small, small part of what this program has accomplished. But my response would be—and I’m partly sticking up for a close friend of mine, Brad Stevens—check your facts. I’ll leave it at that.”
His team earned the last word of the day, one supposes.