In the first three years after Tom Crean took control of Indiana's scandal-tainted program, the Hoosiers' old-school red-and-white jerseys were the only reminder of their glory days. Playing in front of tepid crowds, they struggled against even middling competition and lost 20 or more games in all three seasons.
A couple of strong recruiting classes and an 8-0 start to this season revived hope Indiana was on its way back, but Saturday afternoon's matchup with top-ranked Kentucky provided the ultimate litmus test. And that's why the game-winning three that Christian Watford sank as time expired will be discussed long after the junior forward graduates. It will be remembered not just as the shot that toppled rival Kentucky but as the moment that Indiana exorcised three years of frustration and returned to college basketball's national stage.
With the Hoosiers trailing Kentucky by two points and less than six seconds remaining, Indiana point guard Verdell Jones took an inbound pass in the backcourt, sped up court and attacked the rim. Instead of attempting the game-tying shot, he kicked it back to a trailing Watford, who buried the contested left-wing three at the buzzer to give the Hoosiers a 73-72 victory and touch off a celebration at Assembly Hall four years in the making.
Watford's teammates mobbed him where he released the ball. Red-clad students stormed the floor from all sides of the arena. Maybe the only person in red that didn't celebrate was Crean, who somehow didn't crack a smile until after he'd shaken Kentucky coach John Calipari's hand.
Indiana is still a year away from having talent similar to fellow blue bloods Kentucky or North Carolina, but what this victory showed is the Hoosiers have progressed enough to be competitive with those teams again. The arrival of highly touted freshman center Cody Zeller and the development of returners like Will Sheehey and Jordan Hulls have made Indiana an NCAA tournament-caliber team that surely will make its return to the Top 25 on Monday.
It looked as though Indiana was going to have to settle for a moral victory on Saturday when Kentucky roared back from a 66-57 deficit with under eight minutes to play to take the lead on a Darius Miller dunk with two minutes remaining. Indiana contributed to that run with impatient shots and an inability to find Zeller on the block, but the Hoosiers showed impressive resolve not caving in after they fell behind.
Watford, Indiana's leading scorer a year ago, put an end to talk of him struggling this season by scoring 20 points on 8 of 15 shooting. Doron Lamb and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist scored 19 and 18 points respectively for Kentucky, but sophomore star Terrence Jones had four points and six turnovers and was benched for the final two minutes of the game.
The most frustrating aspect of the loss for Kentucky was that it had a foul to give on Indiana's final possession. Calipari signaled for his team to foul in the backcourt, but the Wildcats did not get the call, enabling Jones to dribble the length of the floor and find Watford for his history-making shot.