This year marks the fifth edition of the annual Crossroads Classic event held in Indianapolis as a celebration of college basketball in the state of Indiana. The Indiana Hoosiers and Purdue Boilermakers trade off each season facing either the Butler Bulldogs or the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in a double header in downtown Indy. Despite an 11 point loss to Tom Crean's ranked Hoosier squad in 2011, the Irish have been very successful in the not-so-friendly confines of Banker's Life Fieldhouse. Mike Brey is 3-1 in the event so far, matching Butler's record. The two BigTen squads haven't fared as well with Tom Crean sitting at .500, and Purdue yet to win a Crossroads game. In 2014, the Irish came in to Indy on the heels of a 20 point home victory over FSU in an early start to the ACC season and absolutely dismantled the Boilermakers 94-63.
As anyone who followed Notre Dame basketball in the 80's and early 90's would tell you, the concept of battling for supremacy in the state of Indiana is only a recent phenomena. For years, when Notre Dame would face Purdue or Indiana at home, the JACC sounded like a raucous road atmosphere - to the Irish. The passionate following for the larger schools and the proximity to Butler's campus assures the fan support for Mike Brey's squad will be minuscule compared to his opponents. This gets listed as a "neutral" game for Notre Dame, but it is hardly an evenly split atmosphere.
The last time the Hoosiers and Irish squared off in Indianapolis, Mike Brey's team got the better of Tom Crean's squad 79-72. Of course, the 2013-2014 season was hardly a banner year for either program. That year's edition of the Hoosier's delivered a 17-15 overall record. Like the Irish that season, the Hoosier campaign ended after an embarrassing loss in the opening round of their conference tournament. In his second-to-last game of that ill-fated season, Jerian Grant put up 23 points and 9 assists, going 11-11 from the line. Pat Connaughton faced off against future Trailblazer teammate Noah Vonleh.
Hoosiers So Far This Year
Before the season tipped off, the BigTen Network selected Tom Crean's Hoosiers to finish second in the conference behind Maryland. Ranked 15th in the initial Coaches Poll, the Hoosiers opened the season with 2 easy victories against Eastern Illinois and Austin Peay. Their first adventure against a team in KenPomeroy's top 60 was a home matchup with Creighton. The Hoosiers convincingly downed the Bluejays (a team that lost to ND opponent Loyola-Chicago) by 19 in Assembly Hall before packing their beachwear for Maui.
In Maui, the Hoosiers opened with a 82-72 loss to Danny Manning's Wake Forest squad, struggling to contain the Deacon front court of Devin Thomas (21 points), Konstantinos Mitoglou (18), and John Collins (10). Indiana bounced back to beat St. John's by 10 in Hawaii, but then fell to UNLV by 3 before taking the long plane ride back to Bloomington. Once home, they blew out a cupcake Alcorn State side (KenPom 349 of 351) before heading to the house of horrors in Durham. The Blue Devils smoked the Hoosiers by 20 in a game that really wasn't even that close. Here's the win probability chart from that game, showing it didn't drop below 95% for Duke in the last 19+ minutes of the game.
That black eye on national TV has caused a lot of the national media, and IU fans to wonder about some of those pre-season expectations. Like the Irish, the Hoosiers have seen their early rankings fade in to "Others receiving votes." Indiana has slipped to 26th in Ken Pomeroy's ratings, five slots below Notre Dame after the Hoosiers feasted on Morehead State, IPFW, and McNeese State at home.
If there's been anything that's jumped out about the Hoosiers this year, it has been their defensive inconsistency. While they did hold a decent Creighton team in check, in the loss to Duke, Indiana surrendered over 1.5ppp. As mentioned above, the loss to Wake Forest was driven by their inability to deal with the Deac's versatile bigs. Against, UNLV, they dug themselves an early 27-12 hole they were unable to climb out of as they committed 21 turnovers in a fast-paced, 73 possession game.
All of this has left the Hoosier fanbase in a pretty uneasy state and many Indiana faithful are pointing to the match-up with Notre Dame as a pivotal point in the schedule. It is their last opportunity to put together a solid resume win before opening BigTen play. Both teams are looking for a resume boost after some early-season stumbles, and neither wants to go in to a challenging conference slate off of a difficult loss.
Tom Crean has used 4 different starting line-up's and an 8 man rotation for the majority of the year. Senior Yogi Ferrell and Freshman Thomas Bryant are the only two Hoosiers to start every game this season. The (listed) 6'0" Ferrell leads the team in points, assists and minutes. As a senior point guard, Ferrell has a 3.1 assist-to-turnover ratio and is shooting 57.1% eFG from the field. Bryant is the prized 6'10" 245 pound freshman with a polished offensive game. He's shooting a remarkable 78% from 2 point range and draws whistles at an impressive rate. Bryant was 2-4 from the floor and 2-4 from the line in 26 minutes vs. Duke, and his utilization rate drops significantly in Indiana's three losses.
The personnel strengths of the Hoosiers mirror that of the Fighting Irish. Demetrius Jackson's matchup with Ferrell will be the headline going in to this contest. Statistically, the two rate out very similarly in the season so far. Jackson has a slight edge in shooting percentage and has taken better care of the ball so far, but Ferrell has been a better facilitator, with better assist numbers. Like Jackson, Ferrell sports remarkable athleticism...
It is safe to say that neither PG in this game has gone up against a foe so like themselves this season. One thing to watch in this head-to-head is whether or not Jackson can use his 20 pound strength advantage to overpower Ferrell, or whether Ferrell's quickness can draw early fouls on Jackson.
Up front, it is also a mirror match-up with dual 6'10, 245 pound big men at the center of the attack. Irish fans have to like the idea of their senior big man going up against the freshman, and the Hoosiers' struggles with Devin Thomas give reason for further optimism. This will be the biggest athletic challenge of Bryant's young career, as he's the only player on the IU roster with the physical stature to deal with Zach Auguste.
Sophomore guard James Blackmon is 2nd in scoring for the Hoosiers this season. He's an efficient shooter and solid defender. Although he'll be giving up some size to Steve Vasturia, the Hoosiers will need the high-volume shooter to be on his best game Saturday. No doubt, Vasturia will relish the opportunity to see if he can hold Blackmon under his 61.2% eFG average on the season.
Junior Troy Williams is also likely to start for Tom Crean. In his junior season, the 6'7", 217 pounder leads the Hoosiers in rebounding with nearly 7 per game, although he had only 3 rebounds in each of the Hoosiers two losses to ACC opponents this season. Irish sophomore Bonzie Colson is most likely to draw the assignment of guarding Williams.
If the Hoosiers start as they did in their last 3 contests, expect 6'3" sophomore Robert Johnson to round out the line-up for Tom Crean. He's made 20 of his 35 three-point attempts on the season, so Notre Dame has to avoid letting him get going from deep. The match-up's between Blackmon/Johnson and Vasturia/Beachem will likely be fluid throughout the game, but whoever V.J. Beachem draws, he'll have a distinct length advantage.
Tom Crean does go a full 8 deep in most games with players like 6'8", 240 pound senior Max Bielfeldt; 6'7", 215 pound junior Colin Hartman, and 6'4", 210 pound senior Nick Zeisloft all seeing around 45% of the available minutes.
Statistically, these teams match up in a very interesting way. Using Pomeroy's opponent adjustments, the Irish offense rates out about two points per 100 possessions better than Indiana's. Defensively, the Hoosier defense rates out about a point better per 100 possessions. Hence these are the number 21 and 26 teams in his ratings and he's showing the Irish as a 53% win probability in a projected 1-point game.
Dictating tempo is going to be a major component of this match-up. The Hoosiers prefer to play at a much quicker tempo than the Irish. Notre Dame has averaged only 66 possessions per game so far this season, where Indiana is over 74 so far - including only 62 in the Duke game where presumably the Devils took the air out of the ball in the 2nd half. The Hoosiers have struggled to care for the ball, and although the Irish have been woeful in creating turnovers, limiting the efficiency of the Indiana offense by creating some turnovers will be critical for Mike Brey's game plan. With veteran PG's running each side, who can dictate tempo will be important to watch on Saturday.
This might be the one opponent where ND doesn't walk in with a significant shooting advantage. IU leads the nation in eFG% so far this season, and the Irish haven't been great at holding opponent shooting in check. Indiana is 7th nationally in 3FG%. If Mike Brey decides to deploy more 2-3 zone against IU, his defense will have to be very aware of the three point line. Five Indiana players with significant minutes are shooting better than 40% from behind the arc.
Surprisingly, the biggest advantage for the Irish might be the offensive glass. Indiana isn't a particularly good rebounding team, and the Irish have been very good at creating second chances. This is the perfect kind of game for Colson to unleash the junkyard dog and clean up around the rim against less physical completion. Of the "four factors," the Irish have shown the biggest advantage on the glass.
As an Irish fan, this is such a difficult one to call. When I started digging through the numbers, I had a pretty sinking feeling. Teams have been shooting the lights out against the Irish, and this is the best shooting team ND will see all year. The Hoosier's inability to take care of the ball is likely offset by ND's inability to generate turnovers. Statistically, IU's defense looks a tad better, but qualitatively in their losses, they've been pretty bad. In theory, the Irish should carve them up. I think it is safe to say this is going to be a high-scoring match-up between two offensive-minded squads. The statistical match-up and personnel match-up's are all very close. When that's the case, the game often boils down to who can give the better effort. On that front, the Irish will be facing a hostile crowd after a difficult week of finals. The flip-side of that coin is Mike Brey's ability to get good defensive performances out of his squad when they're most needed. The Road Dawg mentality from 2014-15 needs to go on display in Indianapolis, and there is experience on this Irish squad to pull from.
Much like the season, this game turns largely on the performance of Zach Auguste. I think Ferrell and Jackson will match-up closely enough that if the Irish get a top performance out of Auguste, it will push them over the top. This is exactly the kind of game that Auguste gets up for. It will be a challenge for him to face up a touted freshman, and if the Irish can establish an advantage inside, that sets up the potent ND perimeter game for open shots. If Auguste can deliver, I really like Notre Dame's chances. If not, this game quickly becomes a toss-up, and ND might be forced to run with a team that thrives on running and gunning. The only thing for certain is that one of the two fan-bases is going to head in to conference play with a lot of uncertainty and doubt. Here's to hoping they're wearing red.
A Few Other Random Things to Watch:
- In the most significant remaining non-conference game, does Brey use this as an opportunity to tinker with line-up's or does he tighten up the rotation? Will he unleash the Pfleuger era, or will Rex remain 8th or 9th in a 7-man rotation?
- IU isn't particularly big. Like the Irish, there are a lot of 6'7" and 6'8" guys in the rotation. Does either coach sell out with some small-ball for long portions of the game? Does Brey use Auguste and Colson more together or separate?
- Can Brey be a master-motivator? After a week of finals and stress, can the Loosest Coach in America (TM) put his squad in the right frame of mind? If I'm him, I'm telling them to go out and have a great time - to take all that stress and hard work and put it all behind you now. The Road Dawgs need to be on point.
- Who uses pressure better? Against Loyola-Chicago, Brey was very effective in using 3/4 court pressure in a 1-2-2 to put his opponent in to shot-clock pressure. Does that continue? Does Crean employ a similar tactic? If so, the Irish have been very good in late shot-clock execution.
- Can the Irish maintain the hot hand from deep? In three of their last four, ND has shot 50% from behind the arc, including two 10-20 performances.
- Will ND double ball screens? I'm not sure about Crean, but a well-coached opponent would have to put ND in a number of ball-screens. The Irish have been hedging softly and recovering slowly, a deadly combination. Does Brey continue to hedge and recover, and if so, are they doing it more effectively? If not, is he forced to jump the ball, double the undersized Ferrell and rely on ball pressure and rotations to turn the Hoosiers over? (I would)