In Purdue's first loss to Indiana on January 30, the Boilermakers' lone bright spot was the performance of freshman center A.J. Hammons. The 7-foot Hammons scored half of Purdue's 60 points and blocked five shots in the 97-60 defeat.
Last Saturday, Purdue was once again blistered by the Hoosiers, an 83-55 defeat at Assembly Hall. The bright spot was dimmed considerably the second time around, as Hammons contributed only six points and three rebounds.
The difference was IU coach Tom Crean deploying senior forward Christian Watford to handle Hammons instead of risking foul trouble for all-conference center Cody Zeller. Needless to say, Crean was pleased with Watford's effort.
"Christian really rose to the challenge," Crean said at his postgame press conference. "He can guard anybody. I'm glad that people are seeing that. He's got a toughness to him."
Watford has flown somewhat under the radar this season as teammates Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller command much of the spotlight. Despite the lack of hype surrounding him in his senior year, Watford may have more bearing on IU's Final Four hopes than any player on the roster.
There have been no ESPY moments like the immortal three-point shot that sank Kentucky last season, but there have also been very few cringeworthy disappearing acts.
This season, Watford has cracked double-digit scoring in every Big Ten game, a level of consistency that seemed beyond his reach after a productive, yet up-and-down, junior year. The last time Watford failed to chip in 10 or more points was the overtime loss to Butler in mid-December.
Last season, Watford was held below 10 points in five conference games, shooting just over 20 percent on those nights. IU lost four of the five.
After setting a career high with 40 percent field-goal shooting in conference play last season, Watford has increased his success rate to 49 percent, including 54 percent from three-point range. Along with the double-digit scoring games, he's also made at least one three-pointer in every conference game.
An occasionally maligned defensive player coming into the season, Watford's effort against Hammons was merely the latest sign of his evolution. Last year, he saw time as a disruptive force against perimeter players like Michigan's Trey Burke and Michigan State's Keith Appling, but his post work will be a point of emphasis down the stretch this year.
Indiana's closing schedule will bring Watford into contact with prominent big men like Michigan State's Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix, Minnesota's Trevor Mbakwe and Iowa's Aaron White. Protecting Zeller from having to cover opponents' primary interior targets will be vital to keeping the sophomore star on the floor.
There's not a lot there that the senior hasn't seen before, and that experience may be the most important trait that Watford brings to his team.
As the face of losing teams in his first two seasons, Watford has a wealth of fuel from which to draw motivation. A team that had failed to close out Illinois could have tightened up again three days later at Ohio State, when the Buckeyes trimmed a 15-point lead to eight with 1:18 left.
A pair of Watford free throws put IU back up 10 in the final minute, calming the waters and closing out a quality road win that had been a long time coming this season.
Closing in on the end of his fourth season, Christian Watford has seen blowout losses and close heartbreakers, magical last-second wins and easy strolls to victory. The final games leading up to his final postseason are no time to begin going through the motions again.
If Watford's finishing drive is as strong as the rest of his conference season has been, IU is a difficult matchup for any team in America. The Birmingham, Ala. native has eyes on a once-unthinkable prize in Atlanta, two-and-a-half hours east of his hometown down Interstate 20.
More than any other Hoosier, he controls the ultimate fate of his team's season.
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