LaVall Jordan can often be heard talking to his team about “the Full 40.” He dreams of an almost mythical scenario where his guys play the right way for every single minute of a game. Butler dominated the majority of its Crossroads Classic contest against Purdue on Saturday but fell well short of the Full 40 — a slow start and a worse finish nearly cost Butler the game, but the Bulldogs were able to finally sink free throws when they counted most and hold off a Purdue charge to prevail 70-61.
This one lived up to its billing as a slow-tempo, defensive battle. Purdue got off to an early lead, but then Butler put on the clamps defensively. The Boilermakers scored just four points over the last 7:23 of the first half; meanwhile, with Kamar Baldwin in foul trouble, the Bulldogs leaned on Bryce Golden, Jordan Tucker, and others to propel the team to a 26-21 lead.
In the second half, Butler continued to suffocate Purdue’s offense and score by committee. The only thing the Bulldogs were struggling with was free throws, but despite poor shooting from the stripe, the lead ballooned to 17 with just under six minutes to play.
That’s when Purdue made some adjustments. The Boilermakers began pressing, playing aggressive defense, and fouling intentionally. As Butler continued to miss free throws and started turning the ball over, the Purdue offense began to heat up and some uneasiness crept up within the Butler faithful.
The Boilermakers were able to narrow the gap to as few as four points, but Jordan Tucker and Aaron Thompson finally stopped the bleeding for Butler by combining to make eight consecutive free throws. As a team, the Bulldogs made their last eleven free throws to put this one on ice.
In a game where Baldwin was a non-factor — with five turnovers, he may have even negatively impacted the Dawgs in this one — Golden and Tucker carried the day, scoring 14 and 12, respectively. Aaron Thompson was also huge in this one, dishing out six assists to just one turnover and knocking down clutch free throws down the stretch.
Purdue may have been doomed from the start in this one. The Boilermakers tried to beat the Bulldogs at their own game, but while the two teams play similar styles, Butler’s superior talent and experience afforded a significant advantage. Purdue certainly missed Matt Haarms in the middle as well — Butler outrebounded the Boilermakers and outscored them in the paint by ten.
While this one didn’t end up as a blowout, the Bulldogs had some dominant stretches where they made the nation’s #9 team in KenPom look helpless. Butler has a top-five resume in the country right now and looks more and more like a legitimate contender with each victory.
I owe Bryce Golden an apology
In my 2019-2020 Butler season preview, I made just one mention of Bryce Golden; that was in a table showing the returning Bulldog players. Admittedly, I did not see Golden becoming a major factor for Butler this season — I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Golden has provided a big, mean post presence that Butler desperately missed last year. He has also provided touch and scoring ability that has really alleviated the responsibilities of Baldwin and McDermott. In this one, Golden flat out bullied Trevion Williams
At some point in the second half of this game, a thought crossed my mind — this team could be a Final Four contender. A team that defends as well as Butler does always has a high floor, but the Dawgs have shown glimpses of having a very high ceiling as well. They can score in a myriad of ways and can defend at every position. They adjust to opponents and control the tempo. They look very similar to great Butler teams of the past. Aaron Thompson defends like Ronald Nored. Bryce Golden has developed some Matt Howard-like abilities. Sean McDermott can shoot the three like Gordon Hayward, and Kamar Baldwin can provide one-man offense like Shelvin Mack.
The Bulldogs still haven’t faced a consensus powerhouse this year, but they have defeated six high-major opponents, including neutral site and road wins. It’s hard to find a true weakness on this team. Big East play will reveal a lot more about this edition of Butler basketball, but talent, experience, coaching, and toughness seem to be combining in a special way for these guys.
Butler faces LA-Monroe on Saturday, December 28, at 4:00 p.m. ET.