Note: this post originally appeared at AssemblyCall.com, where MSF writers Jerod Morris and Andy Bottoms are part of a team that co-hosts a postgame show immediately after every IU game.
A number of players need to play well tonight for Indiana to knock off yet another top-5 team in Assembly Hall.
Cody Zeller has to be a big factor after being a virtual non-factor in East Lansing in IU’s Big Ten opener. Victor Oladipo needs to continue playing like Dwyane Wade Lite in Tom Crean’s offensive system. Jordan Hulls needs to be assertive and timely with his deadly jump shot. And at least one guy from the group of Will Sheehey, Verdell Jones, Derek Elston, and Matt Roth will need to step up and score in double digits.
But no Hoosier is more important to the Hoosiers’ chances of beating a tough, talented, tested Michigan State team tonight than junior forward Christian Watford.
Andy noted Watford’s obvious importance in his IU-Michigan State Preview:
Watford’s play will also be key. Going into the Minnesota game, he had been held without a field goal in three of his previous five contests. However, it’s worth noting that Watford has played some of his best games against Michigan State. He scored 26 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in the first meeting and had 21 points in their only matchup last season. Watford’s contributions on the glass will be critical in this game, and IU fans would love to see him notch his first double-double since the first game between these two teams.
I’d like to expound on it a bit further, and I’ll use some very easy-to-digest stats to do so.
Here are two tables. One shows Watford’s stats in three career games against Michigan State. The other shows his stats in IU’s three biggest home wins of the season, all over top-15 teams.
Indiana has lost all three of the games it has played against Michigan State during Watford’s career at IU (mercifully, the schedule makers only made us play the Spartans once each of the last two years), but it certainly has not been because of Watford.
Earlier this year Indiana lost by 15 in a game that featured wild swings back and forth but that the Spartans ultimately dominated when it mattered. In Watford’s freshman year, the Spartans won by 14 in Bloomington. But last year, as you may recall, Watford delivered a sterling performance that almost resulted in what would have been a huge upset at the Breslin Center. Watford was only 5-15 from the floor, but all four of his 3s were huge, and he was playing aggressively. Unfortunately, he was injured diving for a lose ball, and Indiana lost in overtime.
But the stats are clear: Watford has been a Spartan killer during his time at IU, averaging an All Big Ten-esque 20.3 points and 7.0 rebounds against the conference’s most consistent program.
This is, of course, why Watford so frustrates Indiana fans and likely Tom Crean as well. His talent is undeniable. His ability to make big shots is undeniable. But Watford’s mental makeup and passion have sometimes been questioned, legitimately, and it can be tough to know which Watford will show up from game to game.
But as the second table shows, there is one type of game this year that Watford has consistently shown up in: home games against highly-ranked opponents.
In home games against then-#1 Kentucky, then-#2 Ohio State, and then-#13 Michigan, Watford averaged 18.3 points and 6 rebounds. He also shot a Cheaney-like 52.8% from the field and 58.3% from downtown. You may recall one of the 3s he made. It was kind of a big deal.
So let’s review what we’ve established:
- Christian Watford has a history of strong performances against Michigan State
- Christian Watford has a history of strong performances against highly-ranked opponents this season in Assembly Hall.
Tonight, #5-ranked Michigan State enters Assembly Hall looking to lock up the regular season Big Ten title. Based on what we’ve established, Watford should be primed for a strong outing.
Facing these Draymond Green-led Spartans will, of course, be a huge challenge for Indiana, no question about it. But I must admit: I’m confident.
And I’m confident because, as crazy as this may sound, I’m confident in what Christian Watford will bring to the table tonight. Why shouldn’t I be? The empirical evidence from Watford’s career suggests that of all matchups in all places, this is the one set up best for Indiana’s enigmatic wingman to deliver a strong performance.
When Christian Watford plays at an elite level, Indiana is capable of playing at an elite level and beating elite teams. An elite team invades Assembly Hall tonight. Indiana needs to its giant killer to continue being a Spartan killer.
If he does, and I think he will, the Hoosiers have a great shot to get yet another signature win in what has already been a signature season of resurrection in Bloomington.