Hoosier Hot Seat

Times Staff Writer

Mike Davis took over Indiana's basketball program 2 1/2 years ago, but Bob Knight's presence still looms larger than the state of Texas.

Just last week, the exiled Knight announced that he was giving back his Texas Tech coaching salary for this season because his team performed below expectations.

So with Indiana on the brink of missing the NCAA tournament a year after reaching the national championship game, some of Davis' critics in the Hoosier state suggested the 42-year-old coach do the same.

"They probably wanted me to give back my whole contract," Davis said.

Davis, who earns $800,000 in the first year of an escalating six-year deal, will keep his money. And few are counting out his once-struggling Hoosiers after their reawakening here during the Big Ten Conference tournament.

Indiana (20-12) defeated Penn State and Michigan before suffering a one-point semifinal loss to Illinois. The victories took the Hoosiers off the bubble and earned them an 18th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. On Sunday, they were awarded the No. 7 seeding in the Midwest Regional. Indiana plays Alabama (17-11) on Friday at the Fleet Center in Boston.

"I feel good about this team for the first time in a long time," Davis said after the Hoosiers fought back from a 16-point halftime deficit against Illinois.

Davis and his players have reason for optimism: The Hoosiers were in an almost identical position last season.

Indiana lost to Iowa in a Big Ten tournament semifinal on a buzzer-beating shot by Luke Recker, a former Hoosier who transferred when Knight was dismissed after 29 seasons. After the defeat, Indiana regrouped and went on an NCAA tournament run that included a regional semifinal victory over top-ranked Duke and a Final Four win over third-ranked Oklahoma. The Hoosiers lost to Maryland in the national championship game.

Veteran players say the defeat by Illinois could portend another march to the Final Four.

"This team has that feel right now," senior guard Tom Coverdale said. "Twenty wins is the same amount we had going into the tournament last year, so anything is possible. And if any team knows that, it's us."

Despite the situational similarities, this Indiana team is markedly different from last season's squad -- the first to advance to the Final Four since 1992.

Indiana lost its primary inside presence when 6-foot-10 Jared Jeffries was selected by the Washington Wizards in the first round of the NBA draft. Fiery guard Dane Fife and forward Jarrad Odle also are gone.

Coverdale, senior forwards Jeff Newton and Kyle Hornsby, junior swingman A.J. Moye and senior center George Leach provide experience for a team that features Davis' first major recruiting coup: starting freshman guards Bracey Wright and Marshall Strickland.

"It's a good blend and we're finally starting to put things together," Hornsby said.

The timing could not be better for Davis, who endured renewed criticism from the Hoosier Nation when his team lost five consecutive midseason games, including four Big Ten contests.

As he stretched out on a couch and watched a game on television in his hotel suite last Friday, Davis said coaching at Indiana is a dream job. But like all high-profile programs, it comes with a catch.

"You're never at peace here -- I can tell you that for a fact," said Davis, whose record is 66-37. "Somebody is always saying something. I just try to relax and keep it out of my mind because when I think about it, it really bothers me.

"I know how Steve Lavin and all those guys feel because I go through it all the time."

No one was complaining about Davis or the way he coached when Indiana began the season by defeating Massachusetts, Gonzaga and Virginia to win the Maui Invitational. Not surprisingly, the pressure to repeat last season's Final Four trip began to mount.

"I heard people saying, 'That's a Final Four team,' " Davis recalled with bewilderment. "My goodness, that's Maui. We had a whole season to play."

Indiana improved to 5-0 with an 80-74 victory over eighth-ranked Maryland and increased its winning streak to eight games by defeating state rival Purdue in a nonconference game.

"We were riding the same train we rode to the championship game," Davis said. "After that, reality set in."

Davis, who wears his emotions on his sleeve during games, was at the center of a surreal scene on Dec. 21 near the end of a 70-64 loss against Kentucky at Freedom Hall in Louisville.

With 2.6 seconds left and Indiana trailing, 65-64, Wright drove for a layup and his shot hit the side of the backboard. Davis thought Wright was fouled on the play, and he ran onto the court toward an official while waving his arms in protest.

Davis was tagged with two technical fouls and was ejected. Kentucky made five of six free throws and won the game. The Big Ten suspended Davis for one game.

"I love my players. I protect them if I think someone is doing them wrong -- but I was wrong," Davis said. "I won't look at it when they show it on TV because it's embarrassing. My wife thought something was wrong with me. She couldn't believe it. It was the heat of the moment, and I wish I could take it back."

The Hoosiers lost to Temple in their next game before winning six of their next seven to improve to 14-3 and 4-1 in the Big Ten.

Then the losing began. With Wright out because of a back injury, the Hoosiers were defeated by Purdue, Michigan State, Louisville, Northwestern and Michigan State again. Callers besieged Indiana radio shows, questioning Davis' competency.

"We had our best player out for two weeks, but no one thought about it," Davis said of Wright, who averaged a team-best 17 points during the regular season. "No one said anything about it. All they knew was, 'We're losing five games and he's not the guy.'

"It was disappointing to know you can take an average team and play for a national championship and then, all of a sudden, you can't coach."

Indiana broke the losing streak with a victory over Michigan, but went 4-3 in its final seven games and finished the regular season 18-11 overall and 8-8 in the Big Ten.

The Hoosiers went into the Big Ten tournament having made only 42% of their field-goal attempts during the regular season, Indiana's lowest shooting percentage since 1968-69. They were in danger of becoming the first school since Syracuse in 1997 to fail to make the NCAA tournament the year after playing for the NCAA title.

Most Indiana fans made the drive to the United Center last week with plans for a short stay.

"I'm not expecting them to do much," said Jerry Adams, a 66-year-old Bloomington, Ind., resident who has followed Indiana basketball for 50 years. "I just don't think they have the desire this year."

Adams wasn't sold on Davis either. "I have to question if he's the right guy at the right time," he said. "It just doesn't seem like he's motivating the players.... If he hadn't done it last year I don't think he would go on very long."

Indianapolis residents Pat Young, 55, and her sister Kathy Donely, 50, said Davis was doing fine under the circumstances.

"They need a stronger inside game, and we don't have it," Young said. "The coach can't be better than the players he has."

Indiana looked sharp in its first-round victory over Penn State, making 26 field goals and handing out 23 assists. The next night, the Hoosiers committed only four turnovers and ended Michigan's season. They fell short against Illinois, but headed home with their sights set on a trip to New Orleans for the Final Four.

"These past three days have been a remarkable improvement," Davis said. "We feel good about how were playing. We feel good about what is possible."



Hoosier Nation

Indiana has been one of the most successful men's programs in the NCAA tournament:

*--* NCAA CHAMPIONSHIPS 1 UCLA 11 2 Kentucky 7 3 INDIANA 5 4 Duke 3 North Carolina 3 NCAA APPEARANCES 1 Kentucky 44 2 UCLA 37 3 North Carolina 35 4 INDIANA 32 Kansas 32 NCAA VICTORIES 1 Kentucky 89 2 North Carolina 81 3 UCLA 79 4 Duke 75 5 Kansas 65 6 INDIANA 57 FINAL FOUR APPEARANCES 1 North Carolina 15 2 UCLA 14 3 Kentucky 13 Duke 13 5 Kansas 11 6 Ohio State 9 7 INDIANA 8


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