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Walk in the park is over for Hoosiers

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Things are about to get very interesting for the Indiana University basketball team.

It’s not as if the first half of IU’s season has been a walk through Cupcake City.

Oh wait, that is exactly what it has been. The Hoosiers’ path through 19 games has been filled with more cream puffs than a bakery.

IU did not play a road game on the home court of a nonconference opponent, and its early Big Ten slate was stacked with visits to teams who will struggle to be in the conference’s top 10.

As a result, even though the Hoosiers sit at 17-2, just out of the Big Ten lead in this final week of January, we really don’t have a clue how good this team may be. Or not.

That is about to change.

The schedule will produce a reality check starting Sunday against Michigan State. IU will travel to four ranked opponents and host three more during the final six weeks.

That will be quite a jolt for a team that has faced only two teams ranked at the time of play over the season’s first nine weeks, and both of those at home.

Even then, the ride has been a bit bumpy for a team that came into the season ranked No. 1, sporting a combination of size, skill and experience quite uncommon today’s college game.

IU has beaten the cupcakes on its schedule with relative ease, but more qualified foes have produced struggles.

The Hoosiers are 2-2 against teams likely to make the NCAA tourney, with all but one of those games at home. A neutral-court overtime loss to Butler saw the Hoosiers get out-toughed inside. A home undressing by Wisconsin last week took them completely out of their game.

Home-and-home series remain with No. 2 Michigan, No. 13 Michigan State, No. 14 Ohio State and Purdue. The Hoosiers go to Illinois and No. 12 Minnesota.

If those flaws were revealed in those friendly settings, what will true road games produce?

Three factors are most critical in determining how IU fares in this stretch.

Wat’s up?: Enigmatic does not begin to describe Christian Watford, the Hoosiers’ X factor.

At 6-9 and blessed with great range, Watford is a matchup nightmare. He can crash the boards with impunity; he can step out and hit the 3.

When the senior is on, IU is virtually unstoppable as the middle opens for Cody Zeller and the wings provide space for Jordan Hulls and Victor Oladipo.

Unfortunately for the Hoosiers, Watford also can disappear. When he does, he takes his entire game with him. He had nine points and three boards in the Butler loss and 11 and five in the Wisconsin defeat, both below his averages.

The Hoosiers cannot win if the most dangerous player on the court is also the most quiet.

Bench pinch: The Hoosiers’ one-time strength has turned into a dilemma.

The trio of Will Sheehey, Remy Abel and Jeremy Hollowell is as solid as any bench in the country. Lately, though, solid has turned to shaky.

In the five-point loss to Wisconsin, the three scored only two points in 39 minutes, 18 points below their collective average. That was a clear difference in the game.

As well, heralded power forward Hanner Mosquera-Perea has been slow to develop, and veteran seniors Derek Elston and Maurice Creek have been hobbled by injuries. Austin Etherington is out for the season.

The dependable rotation must return if the Hoosiers are to survive a rugged Big Ten gantlet.

Energy efficiency: Despite these concerns, there is reason to believe the Hoosiers are ready for their tough stretch through the conference’s best.

IU is second in the nation in the UPS Team Performance Index, a gauge of six major statistics — effective field-goal percentage for and against, rebounding percentage, ball-handling efficiency, miscues and winning percentage.

The reason for the high ranking is clear. The Hoosiers shoot and score particularly well. What is most surprising about this team, though, it effectiveness on the boards (15th in nation) and its vastly improved defensive intensity.

The index, while proprietary in nature, produces an interesting assessment of potential success. Following the Hoosiers are Florida, Michigan and Syracuse.

The leader? Stephen F. Austin. Not a national name, for sure, but the Lumberjacks are 16-1 and likely bound for the NCAA tourney.

Bob Johnson is a sports correspondent for the Daily Journal. His columns appear Tuesdays and Saturdays. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net

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