Noie: Crossroads Classic hoops doubleheader was good, but it's time that it ends

Tom Noie
ND Insider

What first developed a decade ago as a new and a different and a downright awesome afternoon of college basketball in Indianapolis had become just another day of hoops.

That’s why the annual Crossroads Classic doubleheader featuring Butler and Indiana and Notre Dame and Purdue and a capacity crowd at Bankers Life Fieldhouse has to end. It’s run its basketball course.

The crush of IU fans, the unlimited free pizza (ugh!) in the media work room, the holiday traffic and the long ride home, we’re done with it. All of it.

Notre Dame’s V.J. Beachem (3) goes up for a dunk during the Notre Dame at Purdue men’s basketball game in the Crossroads Classic at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Saturday, Dec. 17, 2016. Purdue won 86-81. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA via FTP

Word unofficially/officially arrived Tuesday afternoon with quotes from Purdue athletic director Mike Bobinski (a Notre Dame graduate) in the Lafayette Journal and Courier about how this year’s Crossroads on Dec. 18 – which matches Butler against Purdue and Indiana against Notre Dame – will be the 11th and final installment of the annual December doubleheader.

Why? Because, Bobinski said, that's the way folks in "Bloomington and South Bend" want it.

Notre Dame will hold its hand high and admit that it's time to take that December date a different direction. No hard feelings. No side-eye looks. No bad-mouthing the other schools. No animosity. Just no more Crossroads.

That this is it – or will be it –wasn’t exactly stop-the-presses worthy news. Everyone associated with the event, be it administrators or coaches or media or even fans kind of, sort of figured that the end was near.

It was the creation of former Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke, who got the three athletic directors from the other schools together to buy in and do the doubleheader beginning in 2011. In 2014, the four AD’s all signed on through 2021. But the longer it went, and the more 2021 neared, it became apparent that after 11 years, there wouldn’t be a 12th.

When Notre Dame jumped at the chance to play a non-conference December game in its home state, coach Mike Brey was all in. He’s the one who often coined it a “great day of basketball” even though his team was the only one required to travel two-plus hours to the game site. Lose on that last Saturday before Christmas and on the heels of final exams and that bus ride back home would feel like an early lump of coal in your Christmas stocking.

Notre Dame collected a lot of lumps. It enters the 2021 Crossroads having lost two straight and five of six. The Irish are 4-6 overall. Only Purdue (3-7) has fewer wins.

Notre Dame met Indiana in odd years. Notre Dame met Purdue in even years. Notre Dame met Butler in no years. Since Indiana and Purdue couldn’t possibly play a game in December as Big Ten colleagues, the two private schools who rarely play each other as it was, never did.

Why end it now? Myriad reasons.

The Crossroads was a good idea when Notre Dame called the Big East its basketball home. Going to Indianapolis allowed the Irish to play relatively close to home against quality Big Ten teams. And basketball fans in the state of Indiana love themselves some Big Ten basketball. It was new and fresh and exciting to get Indiana on the schedule every other year and not worry about Purcell Pavilion turning all Cream and Crimson, which often happened when the Hoosiers found their way to South Bend.

It was good to play Purdue, where Brey’s mother, Betty, graduated and became an Olympic swimmer. One game a year against the Big Ten? Sign Brey up.

The Crossroads lost that niche when Notre Dame moved to the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2013. The ACC and Big Ten hold their own basketball challenge every December, which means that Notre Dame went from playing one Big Ten school every December to playing two.

Combine that with the ACC’s 20-game league schedule, and it further limited what Notre Dame could do with its non-conference schedule.

Twenty league games condensed everything, and not always in an easy way. Like last year. On Dec. 16, 2020, Notre Dame opened ACC play at home with a 75-65 loss to Duke. Three days later, rather than play maybe a gimmie-home game (i.e. win), Notre Dame ventured to Bankers Life and lost to Purdue (88-78). No way to get healthy with consecutive, sorry, challenges like that.

Eliminating the Crossroads from the December schedule allows Notre Dame more flexibility. Maybe it adds one of those “buy” home games. Maybe instead of having a Big Ten team on that date, Notre Dame returns to its Independent/Big East basketball roots. Get something going with Villanova. Maybe get back into Madison Square Garden. Explore rekindling the rivalry with Dayton. DePaul’s always a popular option and, honestly, an easier trip over to Chicago than it is to Indy.

Marquette returns next season to the non-league schedule. A day of hoops at Fiserv Forum? That will do.

And UCLA has, has, has to rotate back on every few years. To many, it's the gotta-have game. Not Indiana. Not Purdue. But the Bruins and Pauley and the history that holds.

Being locked into the Crossroads locked out all of those possibilities.

Brey likes having the scheduling flexibility that the Crossroads compromised. Notre Dame played three Big Ten schools last year. That’s two too many.

Spending a decade making that 158-mile one-way drive wasn’t always a chore. There were some memorable moments for Notre Dame. Both ironically, involving Indiana kids.

Chris Howell | Herald-Times

Notre Dame Fighting Irish guard Rex Pflueger (0) brings Notre Dame Fighting Irish forward Austin Torres (1) over to the Notre Dame bench after he missed two attempts to win the game in regulation with .8 seconds left during the Indiana Notre Dame Crossroads Classic men's college basketball game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Ind. Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017.

In 2017, Granger native and former Penn High School product Austin Torres had a chance to do something kids in this state never dream of – make one free throw to beat the state’s blueblood/flagship basketball program. He was sent to the foul line with 0.8 seconds remaining in regulation against Indiana and the score tied.

Imagine writing that story. Couldn’t if you tried.

A career 41.3 percent foul shooter, Torres missed the first. And there was zero chance he was making the second. He didn’t and Notre Dame lost in overtime, 80-77. A storybook finish evaporating out into the Indy afternoon.

Three years earlier, former Marian High School standout Demetrius Jackson, who stood maybe 6-foot tops, drove the lane and eyed the 7-2 Isaac Haas right there at the rim. Jackson just kept going up and up and up and eventually, over Haas for a vicious right-handed hammer dunk that sent Bankers Life up for grabs.

Notre Dame guard Demetrius Jackson (11), right, is hit by Purdue center Isaac Haas (44) while dunking in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Indianapolis, Saturday, Dec. 20, 2014. Notre Dame defeated Purdue 94-63. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Sitting on the baseline near the Irish bench, you could see the play develop in slow motion. You could see a sliver of space open and see that Jackson had the cruelest of intentions in mind. He was going to finish. Then he finished. The sequence was part of a 31-point victory by an Irish team that would get within one win of their first Final Four since 1978.

We saw that afternoon in Indianapolis how scary good Notre Dame could be.

Other than the occasional win, there wasn’t much Notre Dame got from the Crossroads. Among the four participating teams, Notre Dame ran last — and distant at that — in terms of crowd support. It was easy to spot the Indiana fans, even the ones not wearing the striped pants.  Plain to see Purdue fans. Butler boosters? Yeah, they were there.

Notre Dame was a pocket of fans here, a splash up there. The Irish felt a whole lot like outsiders. It was a Butler-Indiana-Purdue party and Notre Dame was just kind of included.

Now it’s ending. At just the right time. For everyone. It was good and fun and cool while it lasted, but it’s time for Notre Dame to do something else. To play someone else.

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI