Editor’s note: In the buildup to Midnight Madness, we are taking an in-depth look at Joe Lunardi’s top five seeds in a series called Countdown To Madness. In addition to the Insider pieces, Eamonn Brennan will offer Three Big Things about each team, and we’ll have Five Questions with a player or coach from each squad.
Indiana finished the 2009-10 season with a 10-21 record. The Hoosiers won just four Big Ten games that year, senior Christian Watford’s first at the collegiate level.
But the program and the 6-foot-9 forward have blossomed. The Hoosiers will enter this season as a top-three squad in most preseason rankings. They have the tools -- a strong frontcourt tandem of Watford and Cody Zeller, talented veterans and a nationally ranked recruiting class -- to make a run at the national title.
Watford has been pivotal (12.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg and 43.7 percent shooting from the 3-point line last season) in the program’s resurgence. The senior recently talked to ESPN.com about the NBA, this season and his personal goals for 2012-13.
After a strong finish last season, you considered the NBA. What made you return?
Watford: I just felt like I wasn’t done yet. We weren’t done as a team. I felt like we can only get better. We can only be on the upside of things. Coming in here, we weren’t like that, and I kind of wanted to bring the program all the way back. It was difficult. As a kid, you always want the chance to go play in the NBA. A chance to fulfill your real dream is always tough to turn down, but patience is a virtue. I just wanted to wait it out.
How did Indiana stay focused during those tough years?
Watford: It’s been a constant grind since I got here. For a minute, things didn’t seem like they were getting better, but in all actuality, they were. We worked hard every day. We spilled our guts, and we’ve done a lot to get to this point, and now we’re here. You just want to keep getting better. That was the main thing. Coach [Tom] Crean did a great job with that. We never got discouraged. We started to see results. Once you start to see results, it refocuses you. It was hard, but we had to do it in order to get better.
There’s a lot of Final Four/national title talk surrounding the program right now. How has the team handled those expectations and the pressure that usually comes with them?
Watford: It’s no pressure. I feel like we’ve been through a lot. So we know what pressure is. We’re not really concentrating on that. We’re just focusing on getting better day by day. We hear the rankings, but it doesn’t really mean anything to us until April when it’s Final Four time.
How will you blend the strong freshman class with the core that returns?
Watford: We lead them. When I first got here, we didn’t have anybody like that to lead and to talk to and mentor these guys. That’s what we’re here for now. They come right in, and they’ve got the same goals as us.
Crean said your rebounding has to improve if you’re going to get to the next level. Do you agree?
Watford: That’s got to be my biggest improvement besides points. I’ve shown people I can score the basketball and shoot the basketball. I’ve just got to get my rebounds up and show some more toughness.