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ATLANTA -- How different would things be for Indiana and Kentucky had Christian Watford's last-second 3-pointer not gone in?
"Who knows?" Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "Then we would have been undefeated and lost to Vanderbilt [in the SEC tournament]. Would we have lost before that? Maybe not. I have no idea."
|Christian Watford's buzzer-beating 3 to beat Kentucky gave Indiana the boost it had been looking for under Tom Crean.|
Neither Calipari nor Indiana coach Tom Crean can dismiss what that Dec. 10 ending -- a 73-72 buzzer-beating win for the Hoosiers -- meant for both teams.
It meant plenty.
Beating the top-ranked and unbeaten Wildcats sent Assembly Hall into a rapturous celebration and gave Hoosiers fans the kind of excitement that had been missing from the program for so many years. Finally, it appeared, Indiana had become nationally relevant again.
"It gave the players tremendous confidence," Crean said. "It showed how hard they worked, and they played with a great team against great players."
That belief has helped propel the Hoosiers to their Sweet 16 rematch with the Wildcats. Indiana's resurgence under Crean, who had to rebuild the program from the ground up after Kelvin Sampson's acrimonious departure, is viewed differently in Bloomington, Ind., than in other places. The Hoosiers aren't just happy to be back in the Sweet 16, they expect to be here. According to Crean, that has always been the expectation in the locker room.
"This team isn't going to the Sweet 16 with nothing to lose," Crean said.
As for Kentucky, Calipari simplified what the Indiana game did for the Wildcats.
"It gave us a loss, that's what it did for us," Calipari said. "They beat us more than the buzzer-beater. We were getting pounded, and the only reason we hung around was Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. He gave us a fighting chance. Marquis Teague played well in the second half. Those two gave us a chance, everyone else was missing in action. They took it to every one of our guys.
"They deserved to win it more than a buzzer-beater. They were the better team on that day. It was no fluke. We got beat."
Crean said he had already learned plenty about his team in the run-up Kentucky's visit, which included wins over Evansville, Butler and NC State. Calipari found out that he still had an inexperienced team.
"It taught me that these kids were too young to be fancy, too young to do tricky stuff," Calipari said. "These guys didn't need to be humbled. That's not part of their makeup. They want to win every game they're in."
Kentucky has improved dramatically since that game. Anthony Davis is even more dominant at both ends. Teague steadied as a playmaker. Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb accepted their roles as complementary players. And Kidd-Gilchrist became a star.
"This is what I would say," Calipari said. "I would say I like how the season turned out."