James Blackmon gets it -- how big the Crossroads Classic is every year, and how much more nationally significant Saturday’s event is.
How could he not?
Indiana’s junior guard has been a big part of a fast start that has produced an 8-1 record and a No. 9 national ranking. The Hoosiers will put that acclaim to a big test at Bankers Life Fieldhouse when they face No. 18 Butler (9-1), a team that is dangerous now, and likely will be even more so in March.
“It means a lot. Any time we get a chance to play at Bankers Life, it’s a huge deal for us, and we want to do the best we can. We’ve put a lot of work into it this week. We want to carry it over.
“All four teams are ranked. We want to do as well as we can.”
This will be IU’s first test since its dramatic win over North Carolina at Assembly Hall a couple of weeks ago, and it comes courtesy of a six-year-old event that matches the state’s four premiere basketball programs. Fifteenth-ranked Purdue (8-2) will play No. 21 Notre Dame (9-1) in Saturday’s other game.
“There will be a great atmosphere,” IU coach Tom Crean said. “There always is. It’s four teams that are really efficient offensively, and are getting better defensively. These are teams that have continuity in their programs, and good balance inside of their teams.”
Butler’s success comes in part because of the strong play of leading scorer Kelan Martin.
“He’s a great player and a great scorer,” Blackmon said. “They look for him. His teammates look for him. There are definitely things we want to do to take away from that. He’s always aggressive.”
Added Crean: “He can really score. He’s a straight-line driver, and a very efficient shooter. He takes big shots. He wants to take big shots. He’s getting more athletic. He’s improved. He’s a big-time player and is playing like it.”
Crean is well aware of the Butler challenge.
“They have veterans. They have an experienced team. Chris (Holtmann) is an excellent coach. Now the world knows it. He has a great staff.
“Their movement, and their ability to shoot, is very high,” he said. “They make a ton of shots out of the corners. They continue to play at a good rate defensively. They are very hard-nosed defensively. They know what they want to do. They get back on transition. They don’t send as many to the glass, so they take away your break. You have to be solid there.”
IU has won five straight since its surprising loss at Fort Wayne. Blackmon said he, and many of his teammates, took the loss personal.
“I feel that way. Every time you step on the court and don’t give it your all or don’t start out (well) from the beginning, things like that can happen. We took it as a positive.”
Added center Thomas Bryant: “It was a loss, but it gave us a positive the rest of the season.”
Indiana’s prospects will take a boost with the return of forward OG Anunoby, a potential double-double guy. He’s missed the last three games with an ankle injury. He was cleared to play in last Saturday’s win over Houston Baptist, but there was no reason to risk it given the fact Houston Baptist had no chance to beat the Hoosiers at Assembly Hall. IU has won 24 straight home game.
However, Anunoby will be needed against Butler and while it’s unclear whether or not he will start, one thing seems certain:
“He’s ready,” Bryant said with a big smile. “I can tell.”
As far as what that means to the Hoosiers, Blackmon said, “He brings a lot to the table. He’s done a lot even though he hasn’t been playing, by talking and communicating. That will help so when he steps in, he fits right in.”
Anunoby’s contributions will start on defense, where he rates among the Big Ten’s best.
“There is nobody you can be uncomfortable putting him on,” Crean said. “It’s just a matter of consistency. Athletically and all the intangibles, he has all of that. There is no defensive plan you could put in that he wouldn’t be part of and be very good at it.
“When you have somebody like that, you have to game plan with him, and game plan against him if you’re on the other team. You can move him all over the court. That’s what makes him unique.”