Crossroads Classic Preview: 5 Keys to Purdue vs. Notre Dame
One of the most anticipated events in a basketball-mad state takes place this Saturday. The Crossroads Classic will draw attention primarily for its matchup of top-ranked Indiana and Butler, two teams that can already claim crushing wins over North Carolina.
The other game is not so exciting to the masses, as a struggling Purdue team pulls into Indianapolis to face Notre Dame, conquerors of Kentucky's young and hyped squad. The knowledgeable fan, however, will seek signs of March readiness from the Boilermakers and Irish.
The game is major news in large part because what should be a natural in-state rivalry has been contested only once since 1966, and that came in the first round of the 2004 NIT.
Purdue is trying to get its record back to .500 against 22nd-ranked Notre Dame, and pressure will be on the Fighting Irish to avoid the upset.
These five facets of the game will determine whose fanbase will be happily partying on Monument Circle Saturday night.
1. Control the Perimeter
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Notre Dame gets a very balanced perimeter attack. Five players have already reached double figures in three-pointers made. As a team, the Irish are draining better than 38 percent of their long jumpers.
That irresistible force meets the immovable object that is Purdue's perimeter defense. The Boilers allow fewer than four threes per night, and opponents make less than 27 percent. Unfortunately, the last taste Purdue fans have in their mouth is of their team allowing 5-of-10 shooting in the second half against Eastern Michigan.
When Purdue is on offense, it has yet to find a reliable deep threat. Junior Terone Johnson is the only Boiler shooting better than 31 percent from long range. As a team, Purdue currently ranks as one of the nation's 20 worst three-point shooting teams.
If Purdue can't contain shooters like Pat Connaughton, Cameron Biedscheid and the backcourt duo of Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant, the final score might hurt.
If it's former Boiler Scott Martin (pictured) who is allowed to go off, Purdue fans may be ready to pelt the court with debris. In Purdue circles, Martin is still commonly referred to as "The Traitor."
2. Heavyweight Inside Matchup
While Notre Dame's Jack Cooley is not listed as a center, he's usually found in the low post, banging with the opponent's biggest dog.
Purdue's main interior presence comes from 7', 270-pound freshman A.J. Hammons. Hammons has pulled ahead of veterans Travis Carroll and Sandi Marcius by virtue of not just his bulk, but surprising athleticism.
In Purdue's lopsided win over Lamar, Hammons sent the Mackey Arena crowd into raptures by starting a break with a block, then running the floor to finish with a transition dunk.
Hammons has averaged 11.5 points, 6.7 rebounds and two blocks over his last six games, starting five of those.
Cooley's been hard to keep off the block, and he's not a stranger to working against heralded freshmen. He went for 13 and 11 in ND's win over Kentucky, compared to the 16 and eight totaled by both of UK's big rookies, Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein. For the season, Cooley is eighth in the nation at 11.3 rebounds per game.
The Purdue perimeter woes could lead to Hammons facing two and three defenders on every possession until someone makes the Irish spread out. Hammons hasn't shown himself terribly foul-prone so far, but he may find the going difficult against Cooley and his fellow Irish big men.
3. Offensive Glass
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Lost in the previous slide's discussion of Jack Cooley's rebounding prowess is his lofty ranking on the offensive end. The burly Illinois native is ripping 5.3 offensive caroms per game thus far, tops in America. His 23.2 offensive rebounding percentage is a good three points ahead of his nearest competitor.
As a team, though, Purdue also comes near the top of the national ranks. The Boilers sit in the top 25 of all the rebounding categories entering Thursday's games, including ninth in total rebounds and 12th in offensive boards per game.
Every game since the opener has seen Purdue tear down 39 percent of its available offensive rebounds, but the Boilers have only managed to split those eight games. Pulling down a lot of offensive rebounds signals that a team is missing a lot of its shots, so this may be a battle that Boiler coach Matt Painter will be happy to lose.
Still, the Irish will be taking a risk if they allow the Boilermakers that many second chances. After all, Purdue has lost its three non-New York games by a total of 14 points. An extra shot here and there could swing the result.
4. Backcourt Experience
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Notre Dame junior guards Eric Atkins (pictured) and Jerian Grant have started a combined 89 games in their careers.
Purdue guards Dru Anthrop, Raphael Davis, Anthony Johnson, Ronnie Johnson and Terone Johnson have combined for 43 starts, less than half of the Irish duo's total.
Atkins in particular is no stranger to bigger games than this, making major contributions in the last two NCAA tournaments. In addition, he's on a run of unshakable efficiency, committing only one turnover in his last 143 minutes of play. He's in the national top 12 in both assists and A/T ratio.
The Irish as a team commit less than 11 turnovers per game, among the 15 lowest figures in America. Purdue turns opponents over nearly 13 times per game, but only forced five in the loss to Eastern Michigan.
The Boilers won the turnover battle in both of their New York losses to Villanova and Oregon State, and they may need to repeat the feat to keep this one close.
5. D.J. Byrd
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As one of only two seniors on the Purdue squad, D.J. Byrd was expected to provide leadership and scoring. While his leadership may still be unquestioned, his scoring is puzzlingly absent.
Byrd has missed 19-of-20 three-point attempts since starting 5-for-5 against Clemson two weeks ago. He's carded four points in his last three games, making only one of his 15 shots.
Byrd has, at times, been a fine rhythm shooter, thriving when left alone as defenses sagged onto the likes of E'Twaun Moore and Robbie Hummel. As a primary option, however, he has had difficulty getting himself open looks, and his confidence appears to be flagging.
Painter said after the Eastern Michigan game, "We just have to knock down a couple of shots and feel better about ourselves," primarily in reference to Byrd. This would be a fine time for Byrd to rediscover the form that got left in the locker room at Clemson's Littlejohn Coliseum.
Boiler fans will love it even more if Byrd can knock down a couple over The Traitor.