"I want to handle this the right way," Chris Holtmann said after the game, choosing his words carefully.
Let's rewind a bit. Holtmann had been asked about Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey's comments from earlier this week, where he stated that the Irish are "the most consistent program in the state, and it isn't close." Just hours after the Irish had given up a 16-point second half lead to the Indiana Hoosiers, Holtmann's No. 17 Bulldogs had just pulled off an upset over the No. 9 Purdue Boilermakers, warding off a last-second Boilermaker comeback attempt.
Holtmann, ever the professional, ever the wordsmith, hesitated a bit before he finally leaned into the microphone. "Check your facts."
There was a lot to love tonight from both sides; two Indiana teams going toe-to-toe in the kind of defensive showdown that basketball was designed for in the first place. One team featuring a platoon of seven-footers, eager to dominate inside with their size and length; the other playing with the ever-present chip on their shoulders, grit-and-grinding their way through their early schedule behind a refreshingly explosive new offensive style. It was destined to be one of the best games of the year for both teams, and it didn't disappoint.
In the end, it was redshirt senior Roosevelt Jones, who has a history of coming up big at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in the Crossroads Classic, that carried the Bulldogs to their early lead. Finishing with 16 points and 11 rebounds (his fifth double-double of the year), Jones had six of his boards on the offensive end, cleaning up his teammate's misses for easy looks inside.
Those easy looks were few and far between for both team; the Boilermakers posting nine blocks, the Bulldogs adding 11 steals of their own. For two teams that have been known this season for such potent offenses, it was the defenses that stole the show. 7'0" mega-center A.J. Hammons had five blocks by himself for Purdue, perusing the lane all game while the Bulldogs tried to push the ball inside. Both teams hovered just around the 40 percent mark from the field on the night, and the Boilermakers deserve a ton of credit just for the way they handled Kellen Dunham alone, holding him to two points on 0-of-12 shooting.
Dunham's quiet night opened up opportunities for his teammates, including junior forward Andrew Chrabascz, who had 16 points and five rebounds on the night. Chrabascz had a bit of a scare near the end of the game, tweaking his knee a bit on a hard fall just while he was hitting his stride in the second half. He came out of the game for a few minutes to get his knee taped up, and got a quick breather again when he re-aggravated it after a blocking call, but was able to finish the game. It looks like he'll be fine, but the collective exhale from the Butler crowd as he re-entered the game was enough to show just how big an injury to their best big would have been to this surging Bulldog team.
Also stepping up for the Bulldogs was junior point guard Tyler Lewis, who had 17 points, six rebounds and four assists. Lewis, who stands at just 5'11", entered the game as a potential casualty of Purdue's size advantage, the kind of guy who would get taken out to get bigger defenders on the floor. Credit to Holtmann, who stayed with a smaller lineup for most of the game in an attempt to take some of Purdue's giants off the court, for keeping him in, especially as he scrapped in the lane with the big bodies.
The Bulldogs pulled ahead by as much as 16 in the second half, but missed opportunities at the free throw and some suspect defense let the Boilermakers claw back in during the game's final minutes, cutting the lead down to two with 26 seconds remaining. The dirty work was left to freshman Caleb Swanigan, a former five-star recruit who chose Purdue after de-committing from Michigan State, who had a brilliant performance on his way to a career-high 25 points and his fourth straight double-digit scoring line.
Swanigan added 11 rebounds and shot 3-of-4 from range on a night in which he started out hitting his first five attempts. Both teams will see slight rearrangements in the polls next week after this one, but they'll be very much in play when March rolls around. Hell, it felt like a March game tonight.
The 9-1 Bulldogs will take on Southern Utah next on Tuesday, Dec. 22. After a contest with in-city opponent IUPUI on Dec. 28, Butler will open it's conference schedule on New Year's Eve against Kris Dunn and the Providence Friars.