You don’t have to remind Hoosier seniors Christian Watford and Jordan Hulls about their first two years in Bloomington, when Indiana lost a combined 41 games.
After watching the Hoosiers beat down in-state rival Purdue 83-55 on Saturday, it’s all too obvious that the duo remembers.
As freshmen in 2009, both were thrust into major minutes as Indiana began re-building its program and its image. Throughout their first season, Watford averaged 28.5 minutes, but he shot just 37 percent from the field. Hulls played 25 minutes a night and averaged nearly as many turnovers (1.2) as assists (1.5), via ESPN.
More importantly, the Hoosiers lost all four games to the Boilermakers over their first two years at Indiana.
None of that was lost on the senior leaders as they piled onto their already 20-plus point lead in the second half of Saturday’s win in Bloomington. The win improved fifth-year coach Tom Crean’s record to 78-78, a landmark victory representative of how low Indiana basketball had fallen when the former Marquette coach took over.
Watford and Hulls, by far the most experienced players on Indiana, were the catalysts of Saturday’s huge victory – the second win of at least 28 points over Purdue this season. Watford hit two threes in the game’s opening sequence and then followed that up with another layup. The 6'9" forward is now shooting nearly 49 percent from deep this season.
Up 8-2 just three and a half minutes into the game, the Hoosiers never relented. Not to be outdone by Watford, Hulls hit three first-half three-pointers and chipped in five assists as Indiana whipped the ball around the arc, befuddling the inexperienced Boilermakers.
One sequence midway through the first half encapsulated the seniors’ impact on the team. Hulls, guarding Purdue’s D.J. Byrd on the left perimeter, stuck his right hand into the passing lane and intercepted what should’ve been a simple entry pass.
Hulls transitioned quickly with an outlet pass to Cody Zeller on the right side, who then found Watford open from the left perimeter for his third three of the half, giving Indiana a 26-12 lead.
Hulls has been much maligned for his defense this season, but that was one of two steals on the day. Watford had three of Indiana’s ten, himself. Both have worked hard at their defense this season, evidence that neither is willing to risk an early-March exit.
Watch the clip as one of Watford's steals leads to a transition dunk from Zeller.
Unfortunately for Purdue, it may have been feeling the wrath of the Hoosiers (who had three regular starters in with just over three minutes remaining) as a tune-up game for Tuesday’s showdown at Michigan State.
With the Hoosiers up a half game over the Spartans, Tuesday’s game in East Lansing carries massive Big Ten title ramifications. In a hostile environment, with so much riding on the outcome, experience trumps talent.
Indiana’s seniors are 0-2 in the Breslin Center against Tom Izzo’s teams, but behind 38 points from the duo in 2011, the Hoosiers did take the Spartans to overtime, eventually falling 84-83, via ESPN. Entering Tuesday, the Hoosiers clearly weren’t willing to jeopardize any momentum.
Even as the No. 1 ranked team hosting a vastly inferior squad, the Hoosiers poured it on. They poured it on because it wasn’t that long ago that the Hoosiers’ basketball program was stained from the recruiting misdeeds of former head coach Kelvin Sampson.
After sitting so low among the rank and file of college basketball, the Hoosiers aren’t going to take anything for granted. That’s a direct trickle-down from Crean and from Watford and Hulls, who all drudged through the 10-win season in 2009 and the 12-win season in 2010.
Not to mention that the two players enrolled at IU following Crean’s first season in Bloomington, one that saw Indiana win six of its 31 games.
If Indiana is to realize its vast potential, it will need to lean on the seniors similar to how they propelled the Hoosiers to the Sweet 16 in last year’s NCAA tournament. Over last year’s run, Watford averaged 19 points a game, including 27 in the loss to eventual-champion Kentucky while Hulls finished with 12 points and nine assists in that game.
Given how far the Hoosier program has come in the last five seasons, it’s tough to imagine the two senior-most leaders, giving anything less than everything.