Christian Watford's scoring average is at a three-year low, his 2-point field goal percentage is at an all-time low and he has scored 22 total points in Indiana's three marquee non-conference games -- Georgetown, UNC and Butler.
The No. 1 team in the nation, felled by an unranked opponent, got a meager contribution on the day from a player who could have turned the game on its head. A 6-foot-9 power forward attempted less than half the number of shots he averaged per game, his offensive contributions seeming almost muted, and thus, he played one of his lowest minutes totals of the season.
Yes, I am talking about Indiana-Kentucky on Dec. 10, 2011, a game that in many ways came to define both programs’ 2011-12 seasons. IU coach Tom Crean said afterward and for many more months that the game was a great advertisement for his program, and perhaps some level of validation to his players. Kentucky, it can be rather easily argued, needed that game to see its deficiencies, to better understand how easily it could lose Anthony Davis in its offense and how recklessness and wastefulness in its young backcourt might cripple its overall offensive ability.
Hardly the first person to draw some sort of parallel between Indiana-Kentucky in 2011 and Butler-Indiana in 2012, I spent Saturday and Sunday turning the comparison over in my head nonetheless. And the more I did, the more I considered the side-by-side contributions of Terrence Jones and Christian Watford.
On that bitterly cold day a year ago, Jones struggled greatly. He scored four points on 2-of-3 shooting, committing six turnovers and contributing just one rebound. He spent noticeable portions of the game on the bench, playing less than any other starter save the foul-saddled Anthony Davis.
Watford’s contributions in Indianapolis measured greater, but only just. He shot 1-of-5 from the field, scoring eight of his 10 points at the free-throw line. He committed four fouls and managed just three rebounds, and while every other IU starter played at least 31 minutes (and two played more than 40), Watford played just 23.
There is some reason for concern over Watford, who is taking and making fewer shots and playing fewer minutes than at any other point in his career. His 12.2 point per game barely eclipse his 12-per-outing average as a freshman, the lowest mark of his career and surely not one Watford wants to be hovering around 10 games into his last season of college. He has three double-doubles this season, yes, but he has also now scored a total of 22 points against Georgetown, UNC and Butler, shooting 5-of-24 in those three games.
It’s folly to assume that this is a byproduct simply of Indiana’s depth. Will Sheehey has started over Watford once already this season, a move ostensibly sparked by flagging performance in any number of areas (Crean cited “energy” as one of them). Yogi Ferrell is taking fewer shots and using fewer of his team’s possessions than the player he replaced, Verdell Jones, and even as Sheehey has eaten into Watford’s minutes in certain situations, the absence of Derek Elston has created a far greater need for production from his senior counterpart.
This all, of course, comes after Watford considered leaving (or nearly left, depending upon whom you prefer to believe) for the NBA Draft after last season. It would likely have been an ill-advised move, according to a number of different experts, but it’s one he considered nonetheless. Watford returned and lost time in the offseason to various injuries, but he’s never appeared below full health so far this year.
Watford has been the Hoosiers' best defensive rebounder this season, but he had just three boards against Butler, as the Bulldogs pounded Indiana on the offensive glass Saturday.
In fact, without his rebounding impact and his renewed ability to get to the free-throw line, Watford would be backsliding in essentially every statistical measure. He is first on his team in defensive rebounding percentage, having pushed his boards-per-game averaged up one full rebound, and he has attempted more free throws than any teammate save Cody Zeller. Watford’s 91.1 percent mark from the charity stripe is tops on his team and in his career to date.
But while we did watch Watford shoot nine free throws Saturday (making eight), his three rebounds were far more important. His contribution in that area of the game was significantly limited, and rebounding as much as any other single factor carried the day’s result. Butler’s offensive rebounding percentage finished north of 48 percent Saturday, while Watford — Indiana’s best defensive rebounder this season by some distance — offered a threadbare contribution against the Bulldogs on the glass.
Butler’s defensive approach Saturday seemed simple enough, at least with regard to Indiana’s starting five: Take away Jordan Hulls as best we can, recognize that we can’t stay with Victor Oladipo (something Brad Stevens readily admitted postgame) and do everything possible to keep Cody Zeller off balance and uncomfortable.
Indiana got about what it would have expected from Ferrell and Sheehey, leaving Watford as the game’s offensive x-factor (disregarding his importance against Butler’s offensive rebounding goals). Introducing a third primary scoring source behind Oladipo and the combination of Ferrell and Sheehey would have forced Stevens into a defensive rethink of some kind, and it might have changed the tenor of the game during important stretches of the second half in particular. Instead, Watford continued to miss shots — including some in close, a concerning trend for a player now shooting just 37.5 percent on 2-pointers this season, also a career low — thus finding himself on the bench more than many of his teammates.
(Sidenote: Watford has never necessarily been a good 2-point shooter, a byproduct in part of his preference for 2-point jump shots, statistically the least efficient shots in basketball, but 37.5 percent is a career low and three points below his output last season.)
There are numerous reasons why Indiana lost on Saturday, some of them relevant specifically to Watford’s play (again, we return to Butler’s ability to rebound its own misses), and some not (like the Bulldogs’ astounding 1.28 points per possession in the second half and overtime, a 25-minute period during which Watford played 15 minutes, less than any other starter).
And maybe Indiana is better for this loss, as Kentucky almost inarguably was a year ago. Crean spoke after the game about “excitement” at getting back to practice after the loss, talking like a coach whose team had seen some weaknesses it needed to see, if it was going to make necessary progress ahead of the conference season.
As Indiana turns its attentions toward — three more cupcake opponents not withstanding — Big Ten play, it will do well to remember the lessons it got from Butler in toughness, energy and focus, in many different areas.
But Indiana got one more lesson, and so did its senior forward: As deep as the Hoosiers are, they need Christian Watford to be better than he has been. His ability to earn and make free throws and his rebounding have been enough so far, but Saturday exposed his lack of offensive contributions as well.
There is the player inside Watford that was an all-regional performer in the Sweet Sixteen last season, that scored 47 points in 66 minutes against the eventual national champions. For Indiana to realize its full potential — perhaps for the Hoosiers to reach a Final Four — Watford needs to become that player once more.
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