Saturday marks the 2nd annual Crossroads Classic featuring the four most prolific programs in Indiana college basketball. The second game of the doubleheader features Mike Brey's Irish squad against Matt Painter's struggling Boilermakers. The "undercard" features top-ranked Indiana take on the always plucky Butler Bulldogs.
#22/24 Notre Dame (8-1) enters this game on a six game winning streak that has included some laughers, including a surprisingly giggly one against defending champion Kentucky. Purdue (4-5), however, has gotten off to an uncharacteristically brutal start, dropping five games by an average of six points including a crushing three point defeat at the hands of Eastern Michigan last weekend. This game would probably have more hype leading up to it but for Purdue's early season struggles.
To be certain, Purdue has played a tougher schedule than the Irish (219th vs. 298th according to Ken Pomeroy), although not dramatically so. They haven't exactly gotten blown out in any of their losses either, so this may not be the walkover it appears at first glance. Purdue has been one of the best rebounding teams in the country (5th in rebounding %), so for any chance to win this one, they will have to dominate a thinner Notre Dame front line on the boards.
Still, they have been terribly inefficient from the floor (282nd in eFG%, 328th in 3pt%) and have more turnovers (129) than assists (126) on the season. They have a deep squad but only have one player averaging double digits on the season, and that is guard Terone Johnson with 13 PPG. With offensive numbers like these, they are going to need some easy buckets off of offensive rebounds in order to outperform their percentages. Mike Brey has also indicated his concern for senior D.J. Byrd and his ability to go off like he did against Clemson (22 pts, 6-11 3pt).
Frankly, Notre Dame comes into this one with some major advantages. They have the 2nd best assist-to-turnover ratio in the nation (1.73:1). They are shooting efficiently from everywhere on the floor (16th in eFG%) except for the free throw stripe (63 FT%). Notre Dame also, with four players in double digits, have a number of go-to scoring options that can carry them for minutes at a time. All these stats, of course, are oozing with all the leadership and veteran-ness that we always hear about when anyone talks about this team.
And you'll see me say this a lot, but they go as Eric Atkins goes, and I think this is a wonderful thing for the Irish. He is averaging 11 points and 7 assists so far this season, and that doesn't do justice to how well he is playing. Because of Atkins' confidence, leadership, and balanced game, I think Notre Dame will have the advantage at the point for just about every game this season, and this one is no exception.
632nd-year senior Scott Martin can expect to hear it from the Purdue fans in attendance, of whom I am only now aware are surprisingly bitter about Martin's transfer from the "Baby Boilers" many, many years ago. I'm not really sure what is so "personal" about it, but they are calling him "The Traitor", so there is that. I wouldn't expect any of this to rattle Martin, as he has a few years under his belt, played with zero members of the current Purdue squad, and likely only vaguely remembers Matt Painter from their relationship those many years ago.
Notre Dame needs to do what we are coming to expect it to do to come out of this rivalry game with a victory: take care of the ball, resist the temptation to force shots, and stay disciplined on defense. They have many distinct advantages against a team that, quite frankly, hasn't proven itself to be very good this season, so the Irish need to stay within themselves to keep Purdue from the upset. If Notre Dame gives Purdue a bunch of second-chance points and allows them to hang around for awhile; well, this is college basketball, and all bets will be off at that point.