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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Watford's sayings influence his playing

Watford’s sayings influence his playing
By Hugh Kellenberger331-4369 | hkellenberger@heraldt.com
February 13, 2011

Indiana’s Christian Watford reacts after being called for a foul against Michigan’s Tim Hardaway Jr. Saturday at Crisler Arena. Chris Howell | Herald-Times
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Two shoes. Two sentences. A window into Christian Watford’s mindset.

On the left: “If it ain’t rough . it ain’t right.”

On the right: “What can man do to me?”

The origination of the first is unknown. Watford liked it because he found it symbolic of the Hoosiers.

“That’s what we’re going through right now,” Watford said. “We’re going through a rough stage. We need to get back to the right state.”

The second is from the bible, from Psalm 56. The full version is: “In God, whose word I praise/In the lord, whose word I praise/In God I trust and am not afraid/What can man do to me?”

He wrote both on his Adidas in November, and they have been with him as he has pushed and persevered through a trying sophomore season.

He has scored 20 or more points six times, but Indiana lost four of those games. Watford scored a career-high 30 against Iowa on Jan. 23, but all coach Tom Crean wanted to talk about afterwards was how many points Watford gave up.

He responded with the best week of his career, despite shooting 10-of-29 against Illinois and Michigan State. Watford was focused, driven on defense and did everything his team needed him to do.

He, it turns out, even played with a broken hand against Michigan State. Played 38 minutes actually — diving for a loose ball late, after the injury had occurred.

Thirteen days later, Watford suited up for the Hoosiers and took the floor at Crisler Arena Saturday. He had successfully fought through an injury that can leave you on the shelf for much longer than three games. With a pad and a large bandage protecting his left hand, Watford entered the game with 15:53 remaining in the first half.

In 22 minutes on the court, he was very good. Watford did not attack the rim as well as he would have liked, and the 83.5 percent free-throw shooter did not attempt one Saturday, but he was 6-of-10 from the field and had a team-high 14 points.

With 27 seconds remaining and the Hoosiers down five, Watford dribbled into the paint with his left hand, using his body to create separation and easily put up a basket that cut the lead to 3.

“He really wanted to be back,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said. “I think that’s a big part of this, because he rehabbed very strong. . He was tired early, but he really played hard and through it late. I thought it might be the other way around.”

Watford responded to adversity the way he has so often this season. He slips on occasion — the scouting report on Watford has long had “not consistent effort” under weaknesses — but he always seems to respond. Crean challenged him to have a double-double during the team’s second game: Watford had 17 points and 10 rebounds. Then Crean emphasized getting to the free-throw line: among players in the top 10 in the Big Ten in free-throw percentage, only JaJuan Johnson has more than Watford’s 133 attempts.

You cannot put too much into the magical powers of Sharpie on Adidas. But what Watford, or any player, chooses to write does mean something. When it matters, as those 13 words seem to for Watford, it tells you something about his character.

There are five regular-season games left in the 2010-11 season, one that has the Hoosiers in last place in the Big Ten. In the NBA, where Watford hopes to one day play, this is the time of the season in which stars on losing teams choose to sit back, “rest” and wear a suit during games.

So it says something that Watford did not choose that path. That he had to get back to the team.

The key word from Crean’s press conference was “combative.” The Hoosiers played hard against the Wolverines, but were not combative, Crean said.

That has been an issue for him — he walked out of practice Friday, Watford’s first back with the team since surgery on the hand. The team was better Saturday morning, but that was not the case later in the day.

But what is the difference between hard and combative? I work with words for a living, and it is not entirely clear. The difference left at least one other Hoosier stumped.

Watford had an answer, though.

“You can play hard, but we weren’t playing together,” Watford said. “We were playing hard, but trying to do too much on our own.”

Indiana has now lost three in a row, and the momentum gained from wins against Illinois and Minnesota seems to have dissipated. Maybe Indiana does enough to merit an invite to the CBI, but the season could just as easily be over in less than a month.

It would have been easy to pack it up and focus on next season. Watford didn’t. That matters.

“I wanted to help my team,” Watford said, “with whatever I could give.”

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