BLOOMINGTON –- Don't see failure in Christian Watford's offensive numbers, Tom Crean said. The zeroes under the baskets-made column are meaningless. It's about perspective, you see.
“Everybody wants to score points,” Crean said. “Everybody wants to have a free-flowing game. It's not that way.”
During Wednesday night's 75-56 victory over North Carolina Central the Watford way was 0-for-8 shooting and two points. In his last two games the junior forward is 0-for-13 from the field with three, a dramatic fall from a career 13-point-a-game scorer who etched a place in Cream and Crimson lure with his December three-pointer that gave No. 1 Kentucky what remains its only loss.
And yet …
Watford had a team-leading three steals in 22 minutes against North Carolina Central. He defended, Crean insists, at a high rate. He fulfilled the message coaches preach that if the offense isn't there, do other things to impact the game.
“The bottom line is, is he bringing things to the table that make us better,” Crean said.
“He's a high-level defender. Very few people would want to deal with him when he's guarding them. When he spreads out and plays. It's important that we keep remembering that. It's important I remind him of that.”
Watford is a vital member of Indiana's No. 23 team and if his offense has disappeared faster than Illinois' NCAA tourney prospects, don't sweat it.
The Hoosiers don't.
“Christian will be fine,” forward Cody Zeller said. “His shots aren't falling. He's a good shooter. He just has to keep on shooting. He's taking good shots. We don't have a problem with them. We're not worried about it.”
IU didn't need Watford's points against North Carolina Central, but likely will Sunday at Minnesota, and again next week against Michigan State and Purdue in the final games of the regular season.
So Crean pushes a positive message in what can be a negative world.
“Christian will make shots. He shot great in practice the last couple of days. I don't spend a lot of time on that.”
Crean's time is mostly spent pushing the Hoosiers to go beyond their 21-7 record toward a peak that remains just ahead.
“We wouldn't be in this situation with 21 wins without the play of Christian Watford,” Crean says. “To me it's about getting the win.”
The Hoosiers got the win against a North Carolina Central team that is 0-8 on the non-conference road. They dominated the rebounding (35-16), with the 16 rebounds the fewest by an IU opponent since Northwestern had that number in 2003. They shot well (51.0 percent) and got contributions from everybody who played.
Zeller led with 17 points and seven rebounds. Will Sheehey, making his third start of the season, had 12 points and seven rebounds. Victor Oladipo had 16 points and six rebounds. Derek Elston came off the bench after starting the previous four games and totaled 10 points. Verdell Jones had nine off-the-bench points.
That was far too much for North Carolina Central (14-13), which was led by forward Dominique Sutton's 21 points. The Eagles never led and, in the last 32 minutes, never got closer than 10 points.
This was more than enough for IU to finish with a 13-0 non-conference record, its first perfect out-of-conference run since the 1989-90 season.
Yes, Crean says, that matters.
“I had the coaches go around the room and talk about where they were in 1989-90,” Crean says. “Everybody got to age themselves a little bit.
“For the first time to be undefeated in non-conference play in that long, that's a big, big deal. It's something they can carry with them.”
For the record, Crean was an assistant coach at Michigan State that season.
The Hoosiers face a formidable challenge in the last 11 days of the regular season, and Crean said he wanted to use Wednesday's game as preparation for that.
“It worked out that way,” he says.
As for Watford, as for all the Hoosiers, who remain far from peak play (their 16 turnovers and 22 points allowed off those turnovers Wednesday night will provide a major coaching point the next few days), work remains.
“We've got a 24/7 building, Cook Hall, and one of the greatest arenas (Assembly Hall) our guys can get in,” Crean said. “There's not a time they can't be in Cook Hall working to get better.
“I'm not just talking about Christian. I'm talking about all of them. We're moving forward. We're practicing shorter, so they need to make sure everybody goes in and makes himself better. Make it hard for me to take you out.”