It’s one of college basketball’s lasting images from the past 15 years, Indiana’s Christian Watford catching a kick out from Verdell Jones with a smidge more than a second left on the clock and letting it fly.
IU was down two points. Kentucky was the opponent.
It was Dec. 10, 2011.
When the 3-point shot left Watford’s hands, Dan Shulman, ESPN’s excellent play-by-play man, met the moment perfectly and described what we were all watching in the simplest and most accurate way.
“Watford for the win!” Shulman said in a raised voice.
Then the buzzer sounded. Then the ball swished.
“YES!” Shulman added. “YES!”
Final score: Indiana 73, No. 1 Kentucky 72.
It represented the first loss of the season for the top-ranked Wildcats — and one of the only two defeats they would suffer while on their way to a 38-win campaign that produced a national championship. Unsurprisingly, Indiana fans stormed the court that Saturday afternoon. It was an incredible scene that also marked the end — even if we didn’t know it at the time — of one of college basketball’s best nonconference series that had previously been played every year since 1969.
Which is why Tuesday’s news was notable.
CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein broke the story that Kentucky and Indiana have agreed to start playing each other again annually beginning in the 2025-26 season. It’s a four-year series that will launch inside Kentucky’s Rupp Arena. The following year, the Wildcats and Hoosiers will play at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. After that, it’s back to Rupp Arena. And then, in the 2028-29 season, Kentucky will return to Assembly Hall for the first time since Watford buried that buzzer-beater nearly 12 years ago.
Is it perfect? No.
Perfection would be a series with all games played inside either Rupp Arena or Assembly Hall. True home-road environments are forever my preference. But Kentucky coach John Calipari has a real need to feel like he wins every negotiation he’s in, including negotiations tied to non-league series. So he presumably drew a line at two games inside Rupp Arena, one game inside Assembly Hall, and one game on a neutral court, and Indiana coach Mike Woodson agreed to the proposal because, well, I guess he just decided that Indiana playing Kentucky on Calipari’s terms is better than Indiana not playing Kentucky at all.
I suppose I agree.
Kentucky and Indiana are two of college basketball’s biggest brands, and big brands playing annually is always a good thing, especially in a sport where too many non-league games are total mismatches between teams that should never be on the court together. So I’ll take Indiana-Kentucky anywhere — or Duke-Arizona or North Carolina-Kansas, just to name a couple of other big-brand vs. big-brand series scheduled for the future — over any of the so-called buy games that fill November and December.
Truth be told, I never agreed with Calipari refusing to continue the home-and-home series with Indiana as previously constructed following the 2011 game — although I always recognized it as exactly the type of thing Calipari would do after having the court-stormed on him four months before winning a national championship. When Calipari made his decision, he was the biggest deal in the sport and powerful enough to pull off whatever he wanted without anybody questioning him in any sort of way that mattered even when he said confusing things like this to longtime college basketball reporter Andy Katz: “We were willing to play them in the state of Indiana [specifically in Indianapolis], and they said no to that. That means they don’t want to play us.”
With all due respect, no, that never meant Indiana didn’t want to play Kentucky. It just meant Indiana didn’t want to play Kentucky 49 miles away from Bloomington and take a premium contest off campus while robbing its students of one of the biggest home games on the schedule every other year.
Simple as that.
But … whatever.
As they say, what’s done is done. Nobody has the power to change the past. Which is why, by the time we get Kentucky-Indiana again in the regular season, it will have been 14 years since Watford buried that buzzer-beater, 14 years since we last watched the Wildcats and Hoosiers play outside of the NCAA Tournament. That’s unfortunate. But the good news is that this rivalry between schools from bordering states that have combined to win 13 NCAA Tournaments will renew in two years.
It’s not a true home-and-home series.
It’s not perfect.
But it’s definitely better than Kentucky and Indiana not playing at all.