BLOOMINGTON – Christian Watford ain't sweating Indiana's top-ranked basketball hype. Why should he? It's just opinion. The Hoosiers' senior forward knows what real pressure is like, when you're losing at a program-record rate and hard work gets rewarded by another punch to the ego.
Yes, IU is everybody's preseason No. 1, a team with enough talent for two squads. But Watford insists everybody is locked in on the moment, not the big picture.
“I don't look at the hype,” he says. “I just don't. We hear that stuff. You read it. You hear a lot from the students, but we focus on getting better every day.”
Last year at this time, the Hoosiers were picked to finish near the bottom of the Big Ten. That reflected three seasons of unprecedented losing. But a returning veteran nucleus and the arrival of standout freshman Cody Zeller produced a 27-win, Sweet 16 juggernaut that restored the program's title-winning perception.
“It's different,” Watford says. “The expectations we have we haven't had in years. It will take some getting used (to). We still carry that underdog mentality.”
The 6-11 Zeller is a preseason All-American and the heavy favorite to win national player of the year and, if he chooses to leave school early, become the No. 1 pick in next summer's NBA draft. He's said he'll wait until after the season to decide.
Zeller led IU in scoring (15.6) and rebounding (6.6) while shooting a school-record 62.3 percent from the field. He's expected to showcase the three-point skill he passed on last year, when he never took a three-point shot.
Watford averaged 12.6 points and 5.8 rebounds last year, but he is most famous for the three-point shot that beat top-ranked Kentucky.
Guard Victor Oladipo made the Big Ten's all-defensive team while ranking among the league leaders in steals (1.4) and spectacular dunks, plus averaged 10.8 points. Guard Jordan Hulls rates among the nation's best in three-point shooting (49.3 percent) and free-throw shooting (89.9 percent).
Swingman Will Sheehey is one of the conference's best sixth men. He averaged 8.6 points and 3.1 rebounds, and he hit the game-winning shot against VCU in the NCAA tourney.
Then there's a powerhouse freshman class led by Yogi Ferrell, who provides the kind of point guard skill the Hoosiers have lacked in at least a generation.
Expectations began building as soon as IU lost to Kentucky in last March's Sweet 16. The Hoosiers' preparations reflected that.
“There wasn't a lot of difference in the (offseason) workouts,” Watford says. “That's always been tough here. But the expectations are higher just between each other. We've got very high expectations with one another.”
Coach Tom Crean hasn't let hype interfere with objectives. Players have bought into his full-throttle approach because they've seen that it works.
“Our standard has changed in that we hold each other more accountable,” Watford says. “We're more demanding of each other.”
Crean began pitching his national title vision from the day he arrived in Bloomington in April 2008. The three straight 20-loss seasons that followed just steeled them for this opportunity, Watford says.
“We knew we'd eventually get to this point. It was a daily grind for us. We finally got here. Going into last year we knew we had a lot of pieces to be a great team. We never stopped believing. We knew what we were capable of and we did it.”
The challenge is reaching those capabilities again.
“There is no question our whole mindset is that to get where we want to be as a team,” Crean said, “we have to get a little better every day. It sounds cliche, but it's the truth.
“We wouldn't be in this position now without having had that mindset before. If your team is improving, led by your best players, then everybody else has to fall in line.”