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Indiana's Watford smells the success

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Tipoff: Purdue at Indiana, 2 p.m. Saturday
RADIO: 1250-AM
TV: ESPN

Online: For more on Indiana athletics, follow Pete DiPrimio via Twitter at pdiprimio.

Senior forward has come a long way

Friday, February 15, 2013 - 3:54 am

BLOOMINGTON -- The numbers don't lie.

Or, perhaps, they do.

Perspective matters, you see.

Numbers show Christian Watford has surpassed Jordan Hulls as Indiana's best long-range shooter.

Not so fast, Hulls says.

“He's not better,” Hulls says. He shakes his head -- “No!” -- for emphasis. It is partly in good-natured jest, partly in competitive rivalry. Watford smiles in silence.

Watford is a 6-9 senior forward. Hulls is a 6-foot senior guard. Traditionally guards shoot better from long range than forwards, but Watford is not a traditional player. He guards everybody from Michigan point guard sensation Trey Burke to Nebraska giant Andre Almeida. He has a beard only a mountain man could love. He shuffles along the court as if he's approaching his 75th birthday rather than his 22nd. He mumbles answers even the best recording devices struggle to pick up.

Dominance disguised, but not unnoticed.

Watford leads the Big Ten in three-point shooting. He's 42-for-86 for 48.8 percent. Hulls is 59-for-123 for 48.0 percent.

For perspective, Watford was a 31.9-percent three-point shooter as a freshman. He was at 38.1 percent as a sophomore and 43.7 percent last season.

“It a lot of work in the gym,” he says about the improvement. “It's confidence in having the ability to shoot with the coaching staff. All that helps.

“It's definitely hours and hours in the gym. We have a lot of guys you have to guard and I get a lot more wide-open looks.”

Watford's most remembered wide open look was last season's buzzer-beating three-pointer that stunned No. 1 Kentucky and symbolized, as nothing else did, the Cream 'n Crimson return to national relevance.

Oh, for added perspective, Watford also leads Hulls in free throw shooting, 83.6 percent to 75.6 percent.

“He's not better,” Hulls says again. “I'm not worried about that.”

Watford smiles again in silence. Perhaps, when the cock crows three times, Hulls will admit the truth.

To be fair, teammate Victor Oladipo is a better three-point shooter than both of them. He's 22-for-42 for 52.4 percent, but he hasn't shot enough to make the Big Ten leader board.

It's perspective again, you see.

But we digress.

Entering Saturday's rematch with Purdue Watford is second on the team in rebounding (6.9) and third in scoring (13.2). He, Oladipo and Cody Zeller form as potent a trio as you'll see in the Big Ten, if not the nation.

“He gets better all the time,” coach Tom Crean says. “It's easy to lose sight of how far he's come as a player.

“Has he gotten a lot taller? No. The beard is a little longer than it was when he got here.”

Crean smiles. He's an intense coach not known for comedy, but when you coach the nation's No. 1 team, smiles come easier.

“He's stronger. He's more athletic. He's added so many things to his game. He smells it. He smells a lot of things right now, I would think.”

Crean refers, in part, to Watford's pro potential. He considered leaving last spring for the NBA draft, but the concensus opinion from scouts was that he'd be better off developing his game another year in college.

Plus, of course, there's this whole national championship opportunity to experience.

Watford, an Alabama high school standout, arrived in Bloomington with talent. Consistency, however, missed a connection. Double-double potential clashed with laid-back approach.

Even this season, he's had some no-show performances. After scoring just six points in the Nov. 12 North Dakota State game, he was pulled from the starting lineup for just the second time in his college career.

He responded with 23 points against Sam Houston State.

Watford had just two points against North Carolina, nine against Butler. Since then, however, he's been as good as anybody in the Big Ten not named Oladipo and Burke. He's scored in double figures in 15 straight games. In the last two weeks he's had double-doubles against Michigan and Nebraska. He's 12-for-12 on free throws in his last three games.

“He's playing with a lot of confidence,” teammate Will Sheehey says. “It starts with his defense and rebounding. You get a couple of boards, a couple of assists, you get a good feel for the game right from the start. That's what does it for him, even though he is shooting it really well right from the start.”

IU goes to Watford early because when he starts fast, so do the Hoosiers.

“It's just getting more aggressive early,” he says. “My teammates do a great job of finding me. Getting fouled and getting some buckets. Getting lost in the game.”

Is it hard for a 6-9 player to get lost?

“Not really,” he says. “Not with us. We do a great job of spreading the floor. We've got multiple guys who can score, so it makes it easy for me.”

That Watford has saved his best for last doesn't surprise Hulls.

“Everybody put his time in the gym, and you could see he was getting bigger and stronger. He's getting on the post more. He's such a good free throw shooter. We like to see him down there, see if he can get a couple of fouls and get him to the line. See if we can get him going. He's done a good job with being focused. Whether he's inside or outside, he creates a lot of mismatches for us. That's what we try to focus on.”

Hulls remembers Watford while they were still in high school. They played together at an IU summer camp.

“He was a lot skinnier. He was a guy who was 6-9 who could step out and hit the three and create a lot of problems for other teams. He's grown as a player. He shoots a lot better. He's more aggressive whether it's driving or going into the post. He handles the ball better.”

Watford is the Big Ten's active career leader in points (1,616) and rebounds (723). He has an outside chance to reach 1,900 career points and 800 career rebounds. The only Hoosier to ever do that is Alan Henderson (1,979 points, 1,091 rebounds).

“When Christian is consistent,” Crean says, “he's really good. What he's learned is he has really good teammates that he can make better and they can make him better.

“He knows he's money from the foul line. It's like putting two points in the bank every time he gets fouled.

“He has high personal goals and he's a part of very high team goals. I think it's coming out in his play.”

You don't need numbers to see that.