INDIANAPOLIS – Indiana is still figuring out how good it can be. The Hoosiers showed flashes of their ceiling against North Alabama on Sunday, but there's a big difference between playing a low-major opponent and suiting up against an in-state rival at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
That in-state rival, Butler, has, incidentally, been to the NCAA Tournament more recently than the Hoosiers and been to the Final Four more recently than the Hoosiers. In the last half-decade, the Bulldogs are the second-most successful college basketball team in Indiana by just about any metric. This seems to be the season where the Hoosiers begin to turn that around and that could start in earnest today, with the Crossroads Classic matchup in Indianapolis.
The Hoosiers have played some terrific games in this series in recent seasons. The last time they faced Butler, in 2018, IU won 71-68 on a 30-foot prayer by Rob Phinisee at the buzzer. Then last season, the Hoosiers held off a late charge from Notre Dame and won 62-60 thanks in large part to 17 points from then-freshman Armaan Franklin, who poured in 4 of 5 from 3-point range. That was a very rare performance from Franklin last season, but as a sophomore he's emerged as one of Indiana's most important players. The Indianapolis native has been in attack mode all year on defense and he finally got hot from 3-point range against North Alabama, making five from long distance in a row to end with a career-high 19 points. He could be a key factor today against the Bulldogs.
Butler is coming in as a relatively inexperienced bunch. The Bulldogs have only played two games because of COVID-19 cancellations and their most recent matchup was a 19-point loss to Villanova on Wednesday. This is a different Butler team than the one that went 22-9 and climbed as high as No. 5 in the rankings last season. Long-time program fixtures Kamar Baldwin and Sean McDermott graduated and talented junior forward Jordan Tucker departed early for the NBA, though he went undrafted. In their place, senior guards Aaron Thompson and Jair Bolden lead with a combined 34 points per game and Bolden pulls down seven rebounds per contest despite standing only 6-foot-3. A pair of 6-9 forwards in Bryce Golden and freshman Myles Wilmoth provide height and a little bit of scoring punch, but this Butler team is still finding its way. It's unclear whether Wilmoth or Golden will be at all able to stick with Trayce Jackson-Davis. North Alabama blanketed the 2019 Indiana Mr. Basketball with a zone defense because it couldn't dream of guarding him alone and it will be interesting to see if Butler tries something similar.
One subplot that we will not see play out today is Hoosiers big man Joey Brunk taking on his former team. The fifth-year senior Butler transfer played against Indiana in that 2018 game that came down to the wire, but he is on the bench today in street clothes as the Hoosiers warm up and it appears he will be unavailable again with the bad back that has ailed him all season. The injury robs Indiana of a rebounding threat down low and robs Brunk of a chance to see the other side of this in-state rivalry.
Even without Brunk, however, the Hoosiers seem like they should be the better team in this game. They hit 13 3-pointers against North Alabama and although they likely won't match that output against a better, more physical Butler squad, it would be encouraging to see some of that confidence from deep carry over. Indiana did go through finals this week, so it's possible the team might be a little mentally drained. We'll see if that affects the Hoosiers today as they try to pick up a third win this season over a major-conference opponent.