Final weeks of season will dictate ending
The endgame has arrived at Indiana University.
A six-year saga has boiled down to a six-game season, and barring some sort of March miracle, the uneasy alliance between Mike Davis and Hoosier Nation is on the verge of dissolving over the next three weeks.
There have been good times -- most notably, the Hoosiers' run to the national title game in 2002. There have been bad times -- the 29-29 record the past two seasons, both of which ended without an NCAA Tournament bid. And now Davis is almost out of time as the man who replaced The Man in Indiana basketball.
Unless the IU administration has other ideas, Davis will finish the season. That seemed in doubt during a tumultuous four-day stretch from last Friday to this Monday, when the entire state was immersed in resignation rumors, stomach-flu discussion, Steve Alford speculation and general outrage at an absentee coach. But Davis reiterated his commitment to seeing the season through on Tuesday in a conversation with ESPN.com.
"I'm going to coach the year out," said Davis, whose team is 13-8 overall and 5-5 in the Big Ten heading into a game at Penn State on Wednesday. "I'm going to finish the year, and we're going to win."
And after this season?
"I have no idea what's going to happen," Davis said. "I stopped guessing a long time ago. ... If I do something, it's going to be on my terms."
Indiana athletic director Rick Greenspan set the terms heading into this Season on the Brink, The Sequel, last March. After the Hoosiers finished the 2004-05 season with a 15-14 record, Greenspan said Davis would be retained -- but mandated the team do better this season.
"Given its tradition and success, men's basketball is our most visible sport and will continue to be held to the same top standard," Greenspan said back then. "Mike Davis is the Indiana basketball coach. Coach Davis and I have reviewed every facet of the program, and we are both committed to returning Indiana basketball to the level to which Indiana is accustomed and to which we aspire.
"This is why we have set ambitious and achievable goals for next season, of competing at a very high level in the Big Ten Conference and successfully competing in the NCAA Tournament."
Against that backdrop, Davis fielded his most experienced and talented team since the 2002 Final Four group -- one that was built for a one-year run. Auburn transfers Marco Killingsworth and Lewis Monroe both have only this season of eligibility. Guards Marshall Strickland and Roderick Wilmont are seniors. D.J. White looked like a potential early-entry NBA candidate.
Going with one-year mercenaries from out of state, though, illustrates one of Davis' chief shortcomings at IU: He could not or would not recruit the home-state talent that has been the program's traditional backbone.
Look around college basketball and you see Indianapolis product Rodney Carney having an All-American season at Memphis; Austin's Anthony Winchester and Indy's Courtney Lee combining to average 36.5 points per game for 18-5 Western Kentucky; Josh McRoberts of Carmel and Dominic James of Richmond starting as freshmen at Duke and Marquette, respectively; and mega-recruit Greg Oden of Indianapolis headed to Ohio State.
If Oden were on the way, Davis might have had more breathing room this season. Instead he had none.
Against that backdrop, Davis' make-or-break season began with a bad break. White fractured his foot and missed the first five games. But the Hoosiers routed nemesis Kentucky to go 5-2 without White, then won the only five games he played before breaking the foot again.
That was the blow Indiana has never recovered from. But here's the problem for Davis: It came during a no-excuses season.
After that 10-2 start, the Hoosiers have gone 3-6, with four of the losses by 13 or more points. IU hit bottom with a 19-point loss to Minnesota, then 0-6 in the Big Ten, and stayed there with an 18-point loss last week to previously reeling Wisconsin.
In both games, Indiana was out of it shortly after the opening tip, calling into question the team's preparedness. Defenses have figured out how to deal with Killingsworth in the low post, frustrating him with double teams. And the Hoosiers haven't found a reliable Plan B for the games when foul trouble and defense limits the powerful center's effectiveness.
Now the Hoosiers have to mount a season-salvaging comeback, with four of their final six regular-season games on the road and with an absolute hurricane of discontent roaring around their head coach.
The blowout loss to Wisconsin was the last straw for some IU fans. In the midst of that escalating anger came rumors Friday that Davis was going to resign, and rumors that the student body was planning a large protest at the game the next day.
That game also heralded the return of former Hoosier hero Steve Alford on the visiting bench in Assembly Hall. With the Hawkeyes in first place in the Big Ten, calls for Alford to come back home were growing -- despite the fact that Alford's tenure in Iowa City has, mainly, been a disappointment, and his record has been inferior to Davis'.
Still, Alford's team was hot and his name is magic. This had the makings of a very difficult day's work for Davis to endure.
And then he didn't.
Davis called in sick. The severity of his stomach flu is known only to him and his doctor, but critics had a field day when the coach talked to reporters by phone after the game and lashed out at Indiana fans for creating a climate of negativity that was dragging down his team.
The famed loose cannon had done it again. At a time he was supposed to be seriously ill, he'd not voiced his regrets for missing a key game. He'd said too much, spoken too emotionally, pointed the finger at fans who have endured the school's worst 80-game stretch since the late '60s.
That was followed by Davis' declaration Monday in a teleconference that, basically, he wasn't the guy for this job. That Indiana needed "one of its own" to lead its basketball program.
He sounded resigned to resigning -- perhaps sooner than later. And he followed that jarring interview by no-showing for his weekly radio show from a Bloomington restaurant. Davis did call in during the broadcast's first five minutes and said he'd coached practice that afternoon, gotten too excited and had a setback in his illness, leaving assistant coaches Donnie Marsh and Kerry Rupp to fill in for him on the air.
Davis told ESPN.com Tuesday that his teleconference comments were taken out of context, although there is little to support that assertion. Nevertheless, Davis said fans and media members "took it the wrong way."
"I'm sorry people took it the wrong way," Davis said. "They definitely took it the wrong way. It shouldn't be about Mike Davis anymore. Let's just pull this thing together and be united. This program needs to be on the same page, it needs to have full support. That's all I'm saying."
Then he added: "Anything I say is going to be taken the wrong way. I want people to get past what I say and focus on what's important. That's winning basketball games and trying to develop young men."
Davis said he has not discussed his job status with Greenspan. He said the two meet every Tuesday, but Greenspan is out of town this week. He said he doesn't know when they might get together next.
When they do meet, the bottom line will be an unavoidable topic. Right now there are four possible endings:
• Davis is forced out soon. This is not what he wants and probably not what Greenspan wants either, since the season can still be salvaged. But after missing his two most recent home appearances as the Indiana coach, you wonder whether Davis can face the music when IU plays at home again next Wednesday against Penn State -- and how ugly the music will be.
• Davis steps down willingly at season's end. As tired as he seems to be of the criticism, the coach might be eager to walk away and seek employment elsewhere. The job at Missouri already is open and there will be others in major conferences.
• Davis is fired at season's end. The difference between a voluntary resignation and a forced resignation could be worth several hundred thousand dollars for Davis.
• Davis does enough that IU extends an invitation to stay.
Greenspan didn't publicly spell out the specifics last year, but IU's current seventh-place standing in the league wouldn't seem to qualify as a "very high level." As for the NCAAs, ESPN.com bracketologist Joe Lunardi has the Hoosiers in the Dance as a No. 7 seed -- a fairly safe spot right now -- but Greenspan's words indicate that getting there doesn't complete the mission. Winning a game, or more, would.
Even if he does all that, Davis still might choose to walk away from the job he inherited but rarely was able to fully enjoy. The tempestuous history here might be too much to overcome.
All we know for sure is this: After six melodramatic seasons, the endgame is at hand.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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