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December 13, 2012
The month of December doesn't bring many quality opponents for top-ranked Indiana but it will Saturday in Indianapolis. There at Bankers Life Fieldhouse the Hoosiers will meet the Butler Bulldogs at 2 p.m. in the first of two games in the annual Crossroads Classic.
Make that the Boston Scientific Close the Gap Crossroads Classic. The second of the two game event will feature Notre Dame and Purdue. CBS will carry the Indiana-Butler game while ESPN2 has the Irish and Boiler contest.
This is a much different Butler team than the one Indiana beat last November in Bloomington, 75-59. Back then the focus for the Hoosier defense was on center Andrew Smith and athletic guard Crishawn Hopkins. Smith is back for his senior year but is in more of a complementary role. At least he was until his 24-point outburst Saturday at Northwestern. Hopkins, the leading scorer in last season's matchup, is no longer with the program.
Last year Butler went 22-15, thanks in part to a late postseason run in the College Basketball Invitational Tournament.
The bottom line is this is a much better Bulldog team. The keys have been the addition of two long range bombers and to a slightly lesser extent, the development of a pair of veteran forwards. Butler is 7-2 with respectable losses to Xavier and Illinois and impressive wins against North Carolina, Marquette and most recently at Northwestern. In the 82-71 win over North Carolina in Maui, the Bulldogs led by as many as 27 points in the second half.
"To come off that Maui trip and go 4-0 is huge," said Butler coach Brad Stevens yesterday. "There are very few teams that will be able to do that."
The long range bomber additions are 6-foot-0 Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke and 6-foot-6 freshman Kellen Dunham.
Indiana coach Tom Crean stated the obvious on his Monday night radio show.
"They can really shoot the ball and we have to be sharp in that game in a lot of respects," said Crean.
Clarke left Arkansas after his junior season following the departure of coach John Pelphrey. He was the Razorbacks' leading scorer his last year in Fayetteville (15.2 ppg) and had some huge games against big time opponents. So it comes as no surprise that he leads this team in scoring (17.3 ppg) and has been clutch against the bigger name schools. In the Maui Invitational against the trio of Marquette, Illinois and North Carolina, Clarke knocked down 16 treys and averaged 21.3 points.
"He's an outstanding guard," said Crean. "We're probably going to have to have a box and one, a triangle and two, where we put both guys on him. We have to go deep into the playbook. But he's not alone. If we focus just on Rotnei Clark then that is going to leave a lot of other guys open."
The other guys Indiana won't want to leave open would be Dunham and veteran guard Chase Stigall. Many Hoosier fans know Dunham well as he was an Indiana recruiting target before he committed to Butler and was third behind Gary Harris and IU's Yogi Ferrell for Mr. Basketball after an outstanding senior season at Pendleton Heights. Dunham has as pure of a stroke as you'll see, and is just slowed now by his lack of strength. His production has been up and down but he was on against the Tar Heels, knocking down five three-pointers in a career high 17 point effort.
Continued improvement from forwards Kyle Marshall and Roosevelt Jones is another reason this Butler team is more formidable. The 6-foot-6 Marshall is known for his defense but he's moved his scoring up to 12.1 points per game, second best on the team, and leads the Bulldogs with 5.6 boards per game. At the same time he's not an outside threat, having not taken a single three-pointer this season. The 6-foot-4 Jones, a sophomore, also has yet to take a three this year. But he will play more with the ball in his hands shown by his team leading 3.2 assists.
Those two along with big 6-foot-11, 240-pound center Andrew Smith can make this a difficult team to move the ball against.
"They will be the most physical team we've played," said Crean. "We felt that way last year. They are extremely physical."
That physical play has helped Butler become one of the better teams on the boards this year, especially in terms of offensive rebounding percentages.
"We've rebounded pretty well this year and that will be very important this weekend," said Smith yesterday. "IU is a great rebounding team and obviously get down the floor so well. We need to make sure we get those rebounds and continue that trend we've been setting."
While Indiana won last year's contest by 16 points, the game was tight until the final 10 minutes.
"Last year we kind of struggled to shoot the ball and struggled to score and that really hurt us against IU in particular," said Smith. "We held with them in the first half but then we couldn't score the ball, fouled them too much and they pulled away."
While Butler may be much better offensively, the Bulldogs have to contend Saturday with a Hoosier team that leads the nation in both points per game (89.1) and offensive efficiency.
Stevens knows it is a tremendous challenge.
"Where do you start?" said Stevens. "Do you take (Cody) Zeller away and sink your entire defense and risk the way they shoot the ball? They shoot it unbelievably. Do you take their shooters away and risk being driven on? You try to take their drivers away and risk both.
"I'm not just blowing smoke, I think they're the best team in the country and I'm not sure it's close."
For more on the Bulldogs, check out our Hoosier Game Day page.
A look at the projected Bulldogs' starting lineup and reserves: