When the #17 Butler Bulldogs squared off against the Purdue Boilermakers on Saturday afternoon at the Crossroads Classic, it was widely expected that it would be a low scoring affair among two of the stingiest defensive teams in all of college basketball.
In that regard, it didn’t disappoint.
However, the extent of that stellar defense was still somewhat surprising.
It was 26-21 Butler at the end of the first half, and the Bulldogs had held Purdue to just 21.4% (6-28) from the field shooting overall.
Some of the low scoring offensive output in the first half can be attributed to the Bulldogs leading scorer Kamar Baldwin getting into early foul trouble and being kept on the bench as a precaution, as well as just a tough afternoon shooting overall for the Boilermakers on the other side.
Still, defense carried the way for the Bulldogs in their Crossroads Classic victory. They made life tough, difficult, and downright depressing at times for the Boilermakers offensively.
Purdue ended up shooting just 33% (19-57) from the field at the end of regulation to Butler’s 46.7% (21-45), which was pretty well the difference in the game’s outcome.
The Bulldogs, who are generally undersized, were not in this one–aided by Purdue 7-footer Matt Haarms being ruled out because of a concussion before tip-off.
The Bulldogs also outrebounded the Boilermakers 36-30 in total rebounds in this one–which was the first time Purdue hadn’t outrebounded their opponent all season.
So what are some of the key takeaways in Saturday’s victory:
These Bulldogs (11-1) are a really good basketball team, and their early season success isn’t a fluke. This is a seasoned and battle-tested squad that figures to be a top team in Big East conference play and should end up playing meaningful March basketball in 2020.
Their big win against the Boilersmakers has elevated them to #7 overall in the KenPom rankings–as they rank #17 in adjusted offense and #16 in adjusted defense–meaning this is a well-rounded, complete basketball team.
The Bulldogs have simply gotten back to “their roots” defensively, when the program was able to make a few deep successful tournament runs–that I’m sure you’ve heard about.
Second, this isn’t a one-man “Kamar Baldwin” show offensively anymore.
Baldwin got into early foul trouble in this one, picking up his second foul with 13:34 left in the first half, which sent him to the bench.
The senior All-Big East guard finished with just 5 points (2-9 shooting), 5 rebounds, 3 assists, and 5 turnovers. If you had told me this prior to the game starting, I would’ve probably expected a Butler loss–especially with how tough Purdue’s defense is to score on.
But it was a little bit of everyone offensively for the Bulldogs.
The Butler Bulldogs leading scorer was actually surprisingly starting sophomore center Bryce Golden (14 points), and they were also aided by key contributions from Aaron Thompson (12 points), Sean McDermott (11 points), Jordan Tucker (12 points), and Bryce Nze (8 points).
There are going to be nights where Kamar Baldwin either has an off-game, gets into early foul trouble (like this one), or elite competition gameplans against him so much–that they effectively “take him away”.
The Bulldogs showed again today that they can still win–even when Baldwin doesn’t quite have an offensive output in-line with his usual high standards. His teammates have so far shown that they can step up, and they did once again on Saturday.
In fact, the Bulldogs showed that with junior starting point guard Aaron Thompson orchestrating the offense (6 assists) that they can still find a way to efficiently score the basketball–even against an elite defense like the Boilermakers–with or without Baldwin if necessary.
Thompson is a great on-the-ball defender and has been for a while, but his ability to run the Butler offense, control the tempo, and consistently make the right reads is something that shouldn’t go unnoticed during Butler’s great success to start this season.
If we’re going to give out game recognition though, the Butler bigs: Golden, Nze, and Smits were also excellent in this one.
They consistently fronted Boilersmakers’ big man Trevion Williams, got to him early in transition so he couldn’t establish effective low post position, and played him fundamentally strong, straight up on the block.
Golden’s maturation physically and developmentally from his freshman season and Nze’s “heart and hustle” game have been big difference makers for the Bulldogs this season–but we’ve known this already.
However, Smits deserves a definite tip of the cap for his performance on Saturday as well. Nothing about his 7 minute, 1 for 2 shooting day with 2 points and 2 rebounds screams “awesome”, but he was really good for stretches for the Bulldogs–giving them effective minutes at the 5 and helping them go on some of their biggest in-game runs.
The Bulldogs needed Smits off the bench in this one for brief stints–especially when the alternative is raw freshman big man John-Michael Mulloy–who could really benefit from a year of seasoning before receiving meaningful minutes.
Otherwise, junior power forward Christian David once again provided good backup minutes defensively for Butler, and he even hit a big 3.
Lastly, Jordan Tucker, who has been much maligned at times for his defense with the Bulldogs, played 29 minutes in this one–and while his offense was good, it was actually his defense that impressed the most.
He was left late in the game defensively for Butler to help protect the lead.
One thing that Butler will have to improve upon: free throw shooting.
The Bulldogs shot just 21-32 (65.6%) from the free throw line, and it allowed Purdue to creep back into this one late and make it a game again. Butler simply has to be better in that regard because against elite competition, that’ll get them beat–especially on the road.
If you would’ve told me that Butler would be 11-1 close to entering the New Year with key wins over Minnesota, Missouri, Stanford, Ole Miss, Florida, and Purdue, I would’ve been on Cloud 9–and that’s exactly where all Butler fans should be following their Crossroads Classic victory.
Their only loss has come against #11 Baylor by one point at Waco, Texas.
The Bulldogs’ next game will be against UL-Monroe just after Christmas, December 28th, with tip-off at 3 PM EST (FS1)–as their final tune-up before entering Big East Conference play.