BLOOMINGTON -- Christian Watford as dominating sixth man?
Is that in top-ranked Indiana's future?
Is that the senior's new role?
Consider how well it worked in Thursday night's 99-45 win over out-gunned Sam Houston State in the second round of the Legends Classic. Watford had 23 points (he was 3-for-3 from three-point range, 10-for-10 from the line), six rebounds, two assists and two steals in 23 All-Big Ten-caliber minutes. He also had a team-leading 13 defensive deflections.
Impressive? You bet. But it came with a Tom Crean message -- play hard and well, or somebody else will play. Watford didn't start for just the second time in his career. Instead, Will Sheehey did. Watford came in after the first media timeout and in three minutes had seven points and two rebounds.
In other words, message delivered and received.
“Yeah, it was (extra motivation),” Watford said. “It was Coach Crean's decision It doesn't matter who was playing or starting. I'm bigger than that. I want this team to be successful.”
As far as it being just his second game to come off the bench, Watford said,
“Yeah, it was odd.
“Once he told me (I wasn't starting), there's nothing you can do about it. Just go out and get ready to play. I wasn't too worried about it. Just give 100 percent on both ends of the court and everything will take care of itself.”
Three days earlier, an uninspired Watford had sleep-walked his way to six points and four rebounds in an 87-61 victory over North Dakota State. Crean needs more from him than that against the competition the Hoosiers will start to face, starting next week in Brooklyn with Georgia and UCLA or Georgetown looming.
“We wanted to make a little energy change,” Crean said. “Christian played with as much energy as anybody on the court. It showed up in his numbers. I've got to believe he feels good about the way he played. Those deflections were huge.
“We've got a chance to keep improving. It means energy, toughness and passion have to be the forefront of the program. When everybody plays that way, good things happen.”
Crean said he has seven starters, but can only start five. Sheehey's high-energy performance was the perfect boost for a team that had started sluggishly in its first two games.
Sluggishness gave way to ferocity Thursday night against an opponent that had pushed Arkansas hard on the road last week in a five-point loss. IU's 54-point margin of victory was the fourth biggest in school history.
Sheehey finished with 18 points and five rebounds.
“He keeps playing the way he's playing,” Crean said, “there will be days he gets endorsement deals. Not yet, though.”
Crean took a late timeout to acknowledge senior guard Jordan Hulls, who scored 10 points to finish with 1,000 for his career. He's the 44th Hoosier to reach that mark.
“It's a cool club to be a part of,” Hulls said, “but I couldn't have done it without my teammates.”
Added Crean: “That kid epitomizes what we're doing. He epitomizes what Indiana basketball is all about in so many ways.
“People from the past can identify with him. People in the future can see what can happen when you play in this program and grow up loving this program, but most important is that he impacts our present.”
IU's attack-the-rim present generated 44 free throw attempts. It made 30 of them. It also had 24 assists on 30 baskets against nine turnovers. The Hoosiers (3-0) have won every game by at least 25 points, the first time that's happened since the 1979-80 season.
“When energy, toughness, passion are all there together,” Crean said, “you have a chance to be really good.”
Sam Houston State (1-2) had no answer at either end of the court. It shot just 30.2 percent from the field, had 19 turnovers against five assists and committed 31 fouls.
“I apologize for our performance,” Sam Houston State coach Jason Hooten said. “We are better than that. I am embarrassed by that. Not taking anything away from Indiana. They have a great team and had a lot to do with our performance, but we didn't do the things we've been taught. That's disappointing.”
IU was all over Sam Houston State from the opening tip, swarming with defense, pushing with offense. Point guard Yogi Ferrell's speed and ballhandling set up Hulls and Victor Oladipo for wide-open threes, which they hit. That was part of a 12-2 opening five minutes that set a tone.
The Hoosiers forced seven turnovers in the first eight minutes and pushed ahead 24-8, then 32-10, then 38-14. By halftime they led 52-25 behind Watford's 11 points and Sheehey's 10.
The second half was more of the same. The Hoosiers showed no letup, even with Crean rotating players at a pace that matched their play.
“We had a lot of fun,” Sheehey said. “Practice isn't so fun, but we get to show it in games. We work hard to have fun like tonight. We all enjoy it.”