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Indiana’s Crossroads matchup with shorthanded Butler presents vital opportunity

Indiana men’s basketball enters its final nonconference game of the regular season on Saturday in familiar territory.

The Hoosiers will play Butler as part of the annual Crossroads Classic in Indianapolis at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. This is the 10th year of the event with Indiana being 6-3 all-time in the neutral-site showcase. Indiana head coach Archie Miller has an undefeated 3-0 record in the Crossroads Classic, too.

Miller’s three wins in the event have all come down to a game-winning basket or go-ahead score in the final seconds. In the last matchup with Butler in 2018, then-freshman Rob Phinisee hit a miraculous 3-pointer at the buzzer to win the game.

Indiana-Butler tends to be a great battle every time they play in the event. The two programs have gone 2-2 against each other in the event’s history.

Let’s take a deeper look at what makes this year’s game different than the rest and what implications are at stake.

A new-look and depleted Butler

There might not be a team in college basketball that has had a more difficult start to its season than Butler.

Butler started the year on the first day of the season with a 66-62 home win over Western Michigan where the Bulldogs were nearly upset. The day after, disaster struck as Butler’s roster was hit by a COVID-19 outbreak that forced the team to postpone or cancel its next three games.

Butler didn’t return to play until last Wednesday where it lost at No. 7 Villanova, 85-66.

In addition to dealing with COVID, Butler is learning to gel with a very different-looking roster compared to a year ago.

Last season, Butler had a 22-9 record and was expected to be a high seed in the NCAA Tournament before the season was canceled. More than just a memorable season lost, Butler also lost six players from a year ago.

Four of the players gone were seniors last season, Kamar Baldwin and Sean McDermott were two of them and Butler’s primary scoring options. Along with the seniors, Jordan Tucker was expected to return and be a top scorer for the Bulldogs, but he surprisingly left early for the NBA Draft. Additionally, promising freshman Khalif Battle transferred to Temple.

With a number of key contributors gone, Butler added five freshmen and two transfers to the team in the offseason.

Even after extended rest throughout this season, Butler is struggling to stay healthy. Against Villanova, Butler was without starting center Bryce Golden and presumable starter and senior Christian David due to injury. Prized freshman and 2020 Michigan Mr. Basketball Scooby Johnson had a season-ending injury in the offseason, too.

To make matters worse, near the end of the Villanova game senior point guard and team leader Aaron Thompson bumped knees with a teammate and had to be helped off the floor. His status against at Indiana is still to be determined.

What Indiana has to do

Assuming Butler is still dealing with the same injury concerns as it had Wednesday, it is going to be an extremely shorthanded and inexperienced group.

The Bulldogs will likely have an eight-man rotation, and four of them being freshmen. Particular emphasis has to be placed on Butler’s available veterans, Jair Bolden and Bryce Nze.

Bolden, a graduate transfer from South Carolina, is a serious sharp-shooter, averaging 16.5 points per game while shooting 42.9% from the 3-point line, too. With Thompson likely out, Bolden will be their No. 1 scoring threat.

As a team, Butler shoots the 3-point shot well, making 34.3% of its looks. Indiana will need to pressure the inexperience and youth of Butler and make it difficult defensively from the arc. Indiana has allowed their opponents this year to shoot well from deep, with its opposition holding a 36.9% 3-point field goal percentage on the year.

At the same time, Indiana will have an opportunity to cash in on trying to continue its 3-point shooting success that it showed against North Alabama. The sample size is small for Butler’s opponents, but in two games Butler is allowing opponents to shoot 46.3% from 3.

If Indiana wants to prove it can be a capable shooting team against good high-major opponents, this is a game to do it.

Archie Miller prepares for Indiana before the team’s 2019 Crossroads Classic game against Notre Dame. (Ross Abdellah/HN)

With the guards’ emphasis on defending the perimeter, Indiana will pay close attention to Nze in the post. Nze is a redshirt senior who is really efficient around the rim and rebounds well.

He is a bit of an undersized big at 6-foot-7, but he averages nine points per game and five and a half rebounds per contest, too. A year ago, he led the Big East Conference in field goal percentage at 62.9%.

Supporting Nze down low will be 6-foot-7 freshman JaKobe Coles who made his first career start against Villanova. Butler also has more height in support of the undersized Nze and Coles with 6-foot-10 sophomore John-Michael Mulloy and 6-foot-9 freshman Myles Wilmoth.

What could be a bit of a jolt to Butler’s lineup is the potential addition of Bo Hodges. Hodges is a 6-foot-5 redshirt junior guard who transferred from East Tennessee State but was not ruled eligible to play this year.

Wednesday’s decision by the NCAA Division I Council to allow a blanket waiver for immediate eligibility for all transfers changed this, though. Hodges did not play against Villanova, but could against Indiana.

Hodges was an All-Southern Conference player last year and scored 12.7 points per game.

Regardless of Butler’s lack of depth and injury situation, Indiana should expect plenty of physicality and hard-nosed play from the Bulldogs. The Big East offers a similar style of toughness on the court as the Big Ten and Butler has been known to give Indiana tough time when they play.

Implications

If Indiana were to win, the Hoosiers would be setting themselves up well going into Big Ten play, with a potential 5-2 record.

Their resume to that point would theoretically include three wins over high-major teams on neutral courts. A year ago, in a full season, Indiana only had five wins away from Assembly Hall all season.

A win over Butler would bode well for their momentum going into Big Ten play and allow a bit of leeway in the conference schedule.

On the other hand, should Indiana lose, IU would be looking at a 4-3 mark with less flexibility within conference play.

With the Big Ten being as challenging as it is and no more low-major opponents on the schedule, this game’s importance increases immensely.

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