BLOOMINGTON -– For one night, Indiana senior forward Christian Watford will be teammate Derek Elston.
Check that. He'll wear Elston's No. 32 uniform for tonight's season opener against Bryant. Watford's game remains very much his own.
Watford wanted to honor Elston, who is sidelined for around the next month because of knee surgery. Watford figured the best way to do that was to wear his uniform. Watford normally wears No. 2.
He checked it out with coach Tom Crean, who checked it out with school officials to make sure it didn't break any rules.
It will be, Watford insisted, just for one game.
“I'll give it back,” he said.
Of course, if Watford struggles in the first half with Elston's No. 32 uniform, he might give it back sooner.
After months of hype that left Indiana rated No. 1, the chance to get started has the Hoosiers pumped.
“We're finally to the day to see where we're at,” forward Cody Zeller said.
How pumped are the Hoosiers? Heralded freshman point guard Yogi Ferrell tweeted that, “It all starts (tonight). It's us against the world.”
Lack up frontcourt depth will be a concern, although not against an under-sized Bryant team. Besides Elston, freshman forwards Hanner Perea and Peter Jurkin are out because of NCAA suspension for receiving improper benefits before they got to Indiana.
That means Watford, Zeller and junior walk-on Jeff Howard are the only remaining inside players, although 6-8 freshman Jeremy Hollowell will likely see inside action. Plus, veterans Will Sheehey and Victor Oladipo have defended big players in the last two year.
“If we play conventional,” Crean said, “our backup is Jeff Howard. There will be some conventional and some unconventional.”
The 6-8, 224-pound Howard played a total of 39 minutes in his first two seasons, scoring three points and rebounding nine rebounds.
“He's gotten better,” Crean said. “I would like him to believe that he's gotten better the way that I think I do and some others think. I still think that he is not quite bought into the fact that we'd like him to play. But he will. He'll be out there.
“He does some really good things. He had a couple of plays pick-and-roll wise defensively in the exhibition game that were really good. He battles every day in here. We'll just see where it goes. I'm not ready to call him a rotation guy. I don't know what that is.
"I don't know what's going to happen with it. We're just gonna go play.”
IU can excel by playing small, especially in this first week.
“We've been working on that the last couple of practices,” Watford said. “With our offense, most of the guys can play most of the positions. The main thing will be we'll just have to rebound. That's the main thing we've been working on.
“I don't see too many people in the next five games I couldn't guard as a big five.”
Bryant figures to have little chance. First, it's coming off a 2-28 season. Second, the Hoosiers dominate season openers. They have won 14 straight season openers and 27 straight home openers.
In the last four years under Crean, IU outscored its season-opening opponents 87.5 to 62.8.
No matter. The Hoosiers talk as if they'll leave nothing to chance, especially given Bryant's up-tempo preference.
“(It) will be a big test for us,” Watford said. “We've been working on transition defense. We'll see where we're really at.”
Zeller and Watford made the 50-player Wooden Award watch list. The award is given annually to the nation's top player. It's the latest in a series of honors for Zeller, who is considered the nation's preseason player of the year.
“It's a great honor,” Zeller said. “Not many people make the list with all the great college players out there.”
Added Watford: “It speaks a lot for what we've done in the program.”
1981 title team featured
After tonight's IU game, BTN will feature Indiana's 1981 national championship season as part of its Big Ten Elite series. It will take a look at coach Bob Knight's second national title team.
Boosted by the play of All-America point guard Isiah Thomas, plus standout players such as Ray Tolbert, Randy Wittman and Landon Turner, the Hoosiers began rolling once the postseason arrived. That included a dramatic victory over North Carolina in the national title game.
“We think this episode captures the magic of the 1981 Indiana team,” BTN executive producer Bill Friedman said. To hear the emotion and conviction in the players' voices like Isiah Thomas, Randy Wittman and Ray Tolbert more than three decades later speaks to the bond this team had, and continues to have.
“The '81 team was in some ways a study in contrasts. They had many trials and tribulations during the regular season, including some stunning losses, but come tournament time, the Hoosiers found their groove and steamrolled their way to the title.”