The old Christian Watford returns, maybe

Throughout last summer, I talked to Tom Crean about Christian Watford’s plans for 2012-13. All of our chats centered on Watford’s offseason adjustments and tweaks.

A 6-8 forward who’d considered the NBA draft after averaging 12.6 ppg and shooting 44 percent from 3-point line didn’t need any dramatic alterations. He had to get tougher on defense and on the glass, league officials told Crean when consulted about Watford’s draft stock. But they also recognized his potential.

With a highly touted recruiting class entering the scene, the Hoosiers certainly had a few question marks -- mostly about the chemistry the team would have after adding so many new faces -- as they prepared for the 2012-13 season. But Watford wasn’t one of them.

Once the season began, however, it was clear that Watford hadn’t picked up where he’d left off -- see 27 points in a 102-90 loss to Kentucky in the Sweet 16.

He was essentially absent during Indiana’s 83-59 blowout of North Carolina in Bloomington on Nov. 27 (1-for-9, 2 points in 21 minutes). He was 1-for-5 (9 points) in Indiana’s 88-86 overtime loss to Butler Dec. 15.

Overall, Watford had rarely showcased the same gumption he had a year ago.

But he’s been more assertive since mid-December.

He’s recorded at least 15 points in three of his past five games. And he’s shot 10-for-21 from the 3-point line during that stretch.

In Monday night’s 74-51 win against Penn State, Watford finished with 16 points, 8 rebounds and 2 assists. And he played with as much energy as he had all season. The player who’d produced in spurts throughout the season was finally ready to go at tipoff against the Nittany Lions.

From Inside the Hall:

Christian Watford set the tone with a 13-point first half Monday and the Hoosier defense took care of the rest as No. 5 Indiana set down an overmatched Penn State team, 74-51.

Thanks mostly to Watford, the Hoosiers (14-1, 2-0 Big Ten) were hot early against the Nittany Lions (8-6, 0-2).

Indiana led 44-27 at halftime and despite a sloppy second half that included 13 turnovers, the Hoosiers prevailed easily in front of 9,386 at the Bryce Jordan Center.

Eight of the Hoosiers’ first ten points in the game came from Watford.

“We wanted to get him going. We went to him right off the bat,” Tom Crean said. “That was a big part of our game plan. And he responded.”

Penn State only led once, 3-2 at the 18:20 mark of the first half, but Indiana would quickly get the best of the Lions, reeling off a 13-0 run from there.

“I just wanted to be aggressive, wanted to get in the paint and get some easy buckets to start off,” Watford said. “My teammates did a great job of finding me and we executed some plays and took it from there.”

It’s (potentially) a promising development.

Crean will need Watford’s talent and experience as the Hoosiers prepare for the gauntlet known as the Big Ten.

Watford can’t be a mystery for this program. And his recent success suggests that he recognizes that.

But, to his credit, Watford is in a challenging situation.

A sudden influx of talent can change things for returning veterans accustomed to specific roles in past seasons. We saw it with Kentucky’s Terrence Jones last year as John Calipari welcomed Anthony Davis and Co. There are legit concerns about UNLV head coach Dave Rice’s ability to play youngsters Anthony Bennett and Khem Birch with Mike Moser once he returns from an elbow injury.

It’s not always an easy transition for players in Watford’s position. This is a balanced Indiana team that relies on more players than last season’s squad.

Watford, however, remains a vital component in Indiana’s Big Ten and national title hopes.

Now he just has to duplicate Monday’s effort as Indiana prepares to face some of the conference’s tougher teams.