After what seems like an endless layoff, the Hoosiers finish finals week by playing Butler in the Crossroads Classic in Indianapolis at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. This will be the 51st meeting between the Bulldogs and the Hoosiers, making them IU's third most frequent non-conference opponent (behind Notre Dame (69) and Kentucky (55)). IU's very first basketball game was a trip to Butler, and while the teams rarely played in the 1970s and 1980s, tomorrow's game will be the tenth in the past 22 seasons. The Bulldogs haven't won in Bloomington since 1902, but the series has been more competitive in Indianapolis, whether played at Hinkle Fieldhouse or at neutral sites. Butler has won three of the past four games that have been played in Indianapolis, including a game at then-Conseco Fieldhouse in the 2006 preseason NIT; the championship game of the final Hoosier Classic in 2001-02; and a shocker at Hinkle in the opening game of the 1993-94 season. The series has changed completely since that win 19 years ago. At the time, the Bulldogs were over thirty years removed from their last NCAA Tournament appearance, and were indistinguishable from the likes of Ball State, Indiana State, and Evansville except in that the other programs had experienced NCAA Tournament success in living memory. The Bulldogs finally broke through with an NCAA bid in 1997, and have been a legitimate power since 2001, winning 16 Tournament games in that span (compared to 10 for IU in the same era). The Bulldogs have won at least one game in six of their past seven NCAA appearances, have advanced at least to the Sweet 16 four times, and, as everyone knows, played in the NCAA title game in 2010 and 2011, coming within a rimmed-out desperation heave of winning the 2010 title, which I believed then and still believe would have been the most amazing win in the history of American sport, college or professional. I mean, come on. A plucky program best know for its cool old gym makes an improbable run to the title game, played in its home city, and beats the best program of the past 20 years on a last second shot? It would be too cheesy for film, but it came that close to happening.
In any event, however, it has led to a dramatic shift in the landscape of basketball in this state. Two decades ago, even ten years ago, Butler was simply one of the "other" division I programs. Today, Butler unquestionably is one of the four major programs in the state. Butler is the only Indiana school to have played in back-to-back Final Fours, let alone title games, and is the only Indiana team other than IU to have played in multiple championship games. This has led to an interesting dynamic about whether and when to root for Butler, which I explored on the eve of the 2010 and 2011 title games. My general thought has been that, hey, if I have to root against Butler to feel better about IU's problems, then IU is in big trouble. Still, even since then, the switch to the Atlantic Ten, and the possibly impending move into an alliance with the Big East's basketball-only schools means that Butler is one of the big boys. In the early 1990s it would have been unthinkable for Alan Henderson to have Butler on his short list. In the early 2010s, it made perfect sense for Cody Zeller to consider the Bulldogs. It's a dramatic change.
But enough about history. Here are the current Bulldogs:
The Bulldogs' leading scorer is transfer Rotnei Clarke, who played three years at Arkansas and was a schoolboy legend in Oklahoma. The linked article, which is by David Woods of the Indy Star and is an excellent read, describes him as Oklahoma's Damon Bailey of Oklahoma. I would quibble that only Indiana could have a Damon Bailey. It's nice that he played in front of 13,000 in the state finals. Bailey played in front of 41,000. Still, Clarke is having an excellent year, and is shooting 43 percent from three point range despite taking nearly 10 per game. Butler as a team is surprisingly pedestrian from deep, shooting just of 32 percent, but it isn't the fault of Clarke. Khyle Marshall, a 6-6 forward, is Butler's second-leading scorer and leading rebounder. Freshman Kellen Dunham, an excellent shooter, has been up-and-down but is the third leading scorer. Andrew Smith, a 6-11 beast, will be one of Cody Zeller's more formidable opponents to date. While it isn't reflected in the above stats, Smith scored 24 at Northwestern and is now over 10 points per game on the season. Smith had a rough go of it in Bloomington last year, scoring 3 points on 1-7 shooting, and I'm sure he will want to improve on that.
Butler's excellent 2010 and 2011 teams excelled at taking care of the ball and on the defensive boards in particular. This team appears to be on a similar path, which some excellent offensive rebounding numbers as well. On the positive side, the Bulldogs have had some turnover problems against Northwestern and North Carolina, so perhaps that is a sign that IU will be able to cause some disruption (of course, Butler won both of those games). Pomeroy gives IU a 91 percent chance of victory and a 15 point win. If I were a betting man and weren't predisposed to betting against my school, Butler would be awfully appealing.
This is IU's last major non-conference test and first appearance of the season on a broadcast network. Hopefully the Hoosiers will impress.
Of course, the IU-Butler matchup is only one of two games in the Crossroads Classic. At roughly 4:30, Notre Dame and Purdue will play their first regular season meeting since 1966. You can read the Purdue perspective at Hammer and Rails and the ND perspective at One Foot Down.