The Indiana Hoosiers have depth and they do have two of the nation’s best players in junior wing Victor Oladipo and sophomore center Cody Zeller. Zeller scored 24 points (9-of-11 FG) and grabbed nine rebounds to lead the Hoosiers past Illinois on Friday afternoon by the final score of 80-64, and Oladipo added 12 points and 11 rebounds.
But for as good as those two have been all year for Tom Crean’s team, whether or not the Hoosiers (27-5) can win a national title will also depend on what they get from senior forward Christian Watford.
Watford scored 15 points and grabbed six rebounds against the Fighting Illini, a step in the right direction after struggling down the stretch.
In three of Indiana’s final four regular season games Watford failed to reach double figures, averaging 7.0 points per game and shooting 26.7% from the field in those four games. Entering Friday Watford was averaging 12.4 points per contest and shooting 43.2% from the field (48.6% 3PT), and he shot 50% from the field (3-of-6) while also getting to the foul line (7-of-8) against Illinois.
As a team the Hoosiers shot 54% from the field on Friday and outscored the Illini 40-24 in the paint. With the number of options at Crean’s disposal the Hoosiers are going to be tough for any team to slow down, but that doesn’t mean their road to Atlanta will be an easy one to navigate.
There will be a game during the NCAA tournament in which either Oladipo or Zeller struggle offensively, and that’s where a player like Watford, Jordan Hulls (seven assists) or Will Sheehey (11 points off the bench) comes into play.
“It takes our whole team to win,” said Oladipo following the win. “When guys off the bench step up and when Christian and Jordan step up, it’s huge for us. They’re very capable of that. Without them, we can’t win.”
Watford’s been consistent for much of the season, but in the aftermath of that rough stretch to end the regular season he needed a game like this one to get back on the right track.
And if Watford’s playing well, a Hoosier squad that’s one of the pre-tournament favorites to win it all becomes even tougher to beat.