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NCAA PREVIEW

Hoosier Hot Seat

Just when critics were calling for Davis' job, Indiana coach got his team back on road to NCAA

March 17, 2003|Gary Klein | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — 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.

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