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Fast starts not enough against caliber of teams Hoosiers face

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As Indiana prepares to take the court against Wisconsin tonight in its second straight test against a Big Ten co-leader, the focus will be not simply if the Hoosiers win but how they win.

The Hoosiers have a case of a New Year’s resolution disorder. They can start something, but finishing is a challenge.

As those of us who have already fallen off our 2013 fitness wagon can attest, following through is much more challenging than it appears.

For this Indiana basketball team, though, it may mean the difference between a Big Ten and NCAA championship and a very good team that fell just short of its potential.

The Hoosiers are good enough to win it all. But will they?

Saturday’s win against No. 8 Minnesota was a snapshot of the feast-or-famine challenge.

Ten minutes of the best basketball played in Assembly Hall in decades gave the Hoosiers a 52-29 halftime lead. What followed in the second half was a systemic meltdown of almost historic proportion, as the Gophers got within three points before running out of gas and time.

It wasn’t just one thing that Indiana did to let Minnesota back, it was everything. Defensive breakdowns, unwise shots, missed free throws and silly fouls were almost a recipe for disaster.

Now, the Gophers are certainly a very good team and took advantage of the opportunity. But they did this only because the Hoosiers gave them that opening.

“A year ago, we’d have been ecstatic with that victory, and I want them to enjoy it, but we have different expectation levels now,” coach Tom Crean told reporters after the game. “We have a lot of room for improvement. Where it takes the next step is when players understand they can play better, and I think they do.”

Good teams let down at times; great teams do not.

This Indiana team (15-1, 3-0 Big Ten) has a chance to be great, and that is what makes the Badgers a most fitting opponent.

Wisconsin (14-4, 3-0) is fresh off an impressive dismantling of Illinois on Saturday. They share the league’s top spot with IU.

Even with those credentials, though, this is Indiana’s game to lose. The Badgers cannot beat Indiana unless they are given the kind of opportunity presented to Minnesota.

How will IU respond?

It is easy to overlook these letdowns and not take them as a warning sign.

After all, the Gophers are very good. So is Georgetown, who rallied to take the Hoosier to overtime in November, and Butler, who rallied to win in December.

“We had a good first half, but we’ve got to come out with the same energy in the second half,” center Cody Zeller said. “I thought the energy dropped off a little bit, but we’ll be all right. A win’s a win in this conference.”

True. And a loss is not the end of the world. Indeed, it is unlikely that anyone will get through the tough conference schedule without at least two losses.

Before we get too far ahead of ourselves in crowning IU as a frontrunner, let’s remember that the schedule is brutal starting in February, with road games at No. 12 Illinois, No. 15 Ohio State, No. 22 Michigan State, No. 8 Minnesota and No. 1 Michigan.

Who emerges as Big Ten champion in March and NCAA king in April is likely a matter of who can best finish.

The Hoosiers are good enough to beat anyone and everyone, as the 10-minute, first-half highlight reel showed Saturday. At their best, they are dominant offensively and vastly improved on the defensive end. When coupled with focus and resolve, the combination is impressive.

The resolution to follow through, to finish, is sometimes fleeting.

That is human nature, as some of us can attest when we simply copy the same resolutions from year to year. It doesn’t make us bad, but it keeps us from being our best.

This Hoosier team has lofty goals this season. Whether it reaches them may be a matter of learning to finish against quality opponents. Can they not just make a resolution, but follow through and finish?

The next lesson is tonight at Assembly Hall.

Rick Morwick is a sports correspondent for the Daily Journal. His columns appear Tuesdays and Fridays.

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