Davis answers the call
Forward inspired by anonymous fan's phone conversation
Illinois coach Bruce Weber was resting at home with the flu last Thursday when he received a text from junior forward Mike Davis.
MINNESOTA (16-11) vs. ILLINOIS (18-10)
When: 3 p.m.
Where: at Assembly Hall, Champaign, Ill.
TV: Big Ten Network
Web: WIND (560 AM)
What you need to know: Illinois needs at least one more win to secure an NCAA tournament at-large bid. With Ohio State and Wisconsin ahead for the Illini, this will likely be the easiest of their final three games before the Big Ten tournament. Minnesota does have an outside shot at the NCAAs as well, so the Golden Gophers have plenty of motivation. They're coming off a one-point loss to Purdue and wins over Indiana and Wisconsin. Sophomore Ralph Sampson III, who is 6-foot-11, has averaged nearly 14 points, seven rebounds and two blocks for Minnesota in its past three games. Illinois junior forward Mike Davis is coming off back-to-back double-doubles for the first time since December.
Scott Powers' prediction: Illinois 72, Minnesota 65
The message explained in detail how Davis felt he hadn't lived up to his or anyone else's expectations. He apologized to Weber for his play, and Davis said he planned on being a different player from then on.
"It was pretty long," Weber said. "All I replied was, 'Start with practice today.' Since then, he's played good. He's been a lot more assertive."
Weber would later learn the motivation behind Davis' text. Davis had received an anonymous phone call from a fan the night before, and it had inspired him in a way that Weber, the rest of the staff and his teammates had been unable to while Davis had struggled in recent weeks.
"The number was unknown," Davis said. "I didn't answer it the first couple times. I finally answered it. I was kind of confused, and he started talking to me about my game. He said he had been following me for a while, and he said I hadn't been playing like the real Mike Davis. He wanted to see the real Mike Davis play. He said, 'Get back to what you do and get double-doubles and play hard.'
"To have someone be straight up with you and be positive, it's helpful. Sometimes the coaches aren't. It was nice to finally get positive feedback."
Davis swears he doesn't know who was on the other end of the call, but at this point, it doesn't matter to him or Weber. What does matter is that Davis has returned to his old self. After recording just one double-double in his previous 12 games, he's now had back-to-back double-doubles.
Against Purdue on Feb. 20, just after the conversation, he had 16 points and 12 rebounds. In Illinois' last game, against Michigan, he followed it up with 13 points and 12 rebounds. They were his first two consecutive double-doubles since he strung three together in December.
Before his recent success, he had averaged 8.1 points and 6.9 rebounds in the Big Ten. The numbers were far off the 12.3 points and 9.8 rebounds he had averaged during the team's nonconference schedule.
Throughout Davis' struggles during the past month and a half, Weber attempted to dissect why Davis sometimes looks like a future pro and at other times looks like he deserves to be on the bench. What Weber discovered was it all boiled down to how Davis began a game. If he scored or made an impact early, he was likely to have a good night. If he struggled early, his play would continue that way.
"I think the one thing it seems often is if he gets off to a good start and knocks down his first shot or two, he'll do well," Weber said. "He's a kid that doesn't have great self-esteem. As you saw against Ohio State, we have a number of players who need to get going early or we're in trouble. With him too, I've found, the more minutes he gets, the better he does. I'd like to see him exert himself more in shorter periods to get Tyler [Griffey] more time."
Against Michigan, Illinois was able to get Davis two baskets in the opening minutes as the Illini jumped out to a 13-6 lead. From then on, he kept playing hard. Davis does know what the critics say about his game.
"I guess people say I'm too lax," Davis said. "When I'm aggressive, that's when I'm at my best. I got to play like that every game. Once I get my offense going, that gets me going. It gets me more hyped up. The key is for me to be aggressive in the game. When that happens, it's day and night."
Weber has seen Davis take an overall step back in his game this season, especially in his scoring. Weber believes it has to do with the facts that Illinois doesn't have the number of players who can create for Davis as it did last year, defenses began keying on him this season and because he missed a majority of the offseason with a broken ankle and a tonsillectomy he didn't have much time to grow as a player.
"He may have picked up some bad habits, too," Weber said. "He seems to shoot off one foot a lot and fade away. Last year, he wasn't a post player, but he had quick turnaround hook that worked. This year, he hasn't done that. He needs to give more shot-fakes and get around people. He needs to add versatility to his game."
After the season, Weber and Davis will decide the best route to get Davis ahead again. One option is for Davis to test the NBA draft waters, train with some high-level prospects and pull his name out of the draft to return to Illinois for his senior season.
"For one, I will never hold anyone back from it," Weber said. "It can be good where you have guys in the gym pushing him. It also can be a negative and be a blow to a player's confidence if they don't do well and fail."
Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.