Move Over, Keith Smart: Christian Watford’s Buzzer Beater over Kentucky Is Now IU’s ‘Shot’

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Darron Cummings / AP

Christian Watford's 3-point shot to beat Kentucky in December wasn't just any old buzzer-beater. It revived an entire program.

It’s taken 12 years for Indiana fans to fully get over the Bob Knight era. No matter what happens on Friday in a rematch against No. 1 Kentucky, we’re finally saying goodbye to all that triumph and tumult, thanks to one remarkable three-pointer.

Before we continue, a full disclosure: I love IU basketball. I love IU basketball more than I love some members of my family. I grew up 45 miles outside Bloomington. My dad started taking me to games when I was a kid. I attended IU. I own candy-striped warm-up pants. I wear them regularly. So I’m not even going to try to be objective about the Hoosiers. Purdue and Kentucky fans: You may want to look elsewhere. So there.

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For 25 years, there has been only one “shot” for IU fans. In 1987, Keith Smart hit a baseline fall-away jumper with seconds left to beat Jim Boeheim and Syracuse by one point for the national championship. IU fans have watched countless replays of it, and considering it brought home IU’s most recent national championship, “the Shot” is legendary.

But on Dec. 10, IU fans were treated to another unforgettable moment — one that, luckily for us, isn’t a quarter-century old. With IU down by two against the top-ranked Kentucky Wildcats, Verdell Jones III found a wide-open Christian Watford on the wing. His three looked good from the moment it left his hand — a perfect rainbow arc that fell precisely through the rim as time ran out.

It wasn’t for a championship. It wasn’t even a Big Ten conference win. And it wasn’t supposed to happen. Not this year.

Those who have come of age in the past few years probably don’t fully realize the program’s dominance from the mid-1970s through the 1980s. Under Bob Knight, the Hoosiers won three championships in that era. Only they, NC State and Louisville won more than one. From 1974 to 1976, they lost just a single game, going undefeated in 1975–76. During Knight’s 29-year tenure, they won 11 Big Ten titles.

But those familiar with today’s Hoosiers know only the Big Ten bottom dwellers of the past three seasons. When Tom Crean took over from the coach who shall not be named (we’ll link to him, but that’s it), he walked into a void that formerly held an incredibly successful men’s basketball program. The five banners hanging in Assembly Hall felt like they were from the Pleistocene Era.

In his first year, Crean barely assembled a team. A student manager and a player on the university’s baseball team suited up because Crean needed bodies. He had inherited an entire year of recruiting restrictions from the previous season, and the squad lost scholarships. The NCAA was ready to pounce if the school made another misstep. The Hoosiers were a footnote in the state of Indiana as other teams, notably Butler, began ascending. The only thing left from a storied program was the name on the front of the jerseys.

In Crean’s first three seasons, the records looked like this: 6–25, 10–21, 12–20. And don’t think there weren’t rumblings in those first few years that Crean wasn’t cut out for the job. Plenty of Indiana’s faithful doubted the new coach. Fans were sick of hearing “Next year. Just wait ’til next year.”

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But this time, “next year” really was supposed to be next year. It certainly wasn’t supposed to be this year. A much talked-about group of freshmen (nicknamed the Movement) will arrive in Bloomington next fall. Ranked No. 2 in the nation by multiple college-basketball-recruit sites, the Hoosiers were finally going to re-emerge in Year 5 of the Crean era. But this current team decided they didn’t want to wait one more year, to the surprise of just about everybody, and with essentially only one new player — the incredibly skilled big man Cody Zeller.

That’s why this season is so remarkable and why we can stop hanging on to Smart’s shot. If you watch the reaction to Watford’s game-winning three, which has been impossible to escape if you’ve turned on ESPN in the past four months, it wasn’t just a regular ol’ court storming. It was a collective and spontaneous surge of relief. All that built-up frustration — which began with Knight’s firing, lingered through the Mike Davis seasons, fell to the lowest depths with the coach who shall not be named, and continued through the mire of three of the worst seasons in the history of the program — washed away with one three-point shot.

It didn’t win IU a championship. But it revived a program. And in the end, that might be more significant.

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