Hoosiers likely headed to NIT; Davis likely to return
CHICAGO -- Give Mike Davis this much -- the man stayed on message.
"We're the fourth seed," the Indiana University coach said endlessly after his Hoosiers were bum-rushed from the Big Ten tournament Friday afternoon. A recount of the tape from the postgame press conference put the count at 25 times.
That was the response to almost every topic. The question could have been, "Boxers or briefs?" The answer still would have been, "We're the fourth seed."
Davis' mantra was meant to explain why Indiana should be part of the 65-team NCAA Tournament field Sunday. A fourth-place Big Ten team with a 10-6 league record should make the field, Davis was saying, especially in favor of teams that finished fifth (Minnesota) or sixth (Iowa).
"Has that ever happened before in the history of college basketball?" Davis asked. "If it happens on Sunday, we'll be the first team."
The only problem with that logic was the scoreboard in the United Center. It read Minnesota 71, Indiana 55, and it spelled the objective end of the Hoosiers' NCAA hopes.
In point of fact, Minnesota and Indiana wound up tied for fourth with 10-6 records and split two regular-season meetings. The Hoosiers won the tiebreaker on paper, but then the Gophers won the tiebreaker that mattered most Friday.
The one on the court.
Minnesota is now 11-6 in Big Ten play, and Indiana is now 10-7. You don't need an MIT degree to figure out which one is better.
Overall the Hoosiers are now 15-13 -- which isn't good enough. Yes, they had a murderous early schedule, which was unfair with four freshman playing key roles. Yes, the team had to endure daily speculation about this being the end of the Davis Era, from Midnight Madness through a 2-6 start and right on into March. Yes, they got a terrible officiating break that allowed a game-winning half-court shot by Charlotte that came after the buzzer. Yes, they fought back admirably down the stretch and were a Wisconsin putback at the buzzer away from a five-game winning streak entering this tournament.
But the bottom line was that Indiana needed to win this game to feel secure about an NCAA bid. And the young Hoosiers flopped.
"I think subconsciously we really put a lot of pressure on ourselves," guard Bracey Wright said. "There was a lot of talk about this game right here. All week people were asking us about Minnesota and about our (NCAA) chances. & It wasn't said, but I think we did put a lot of pressure on ourselves to win this game."
You sensed trouble for Indiana from the beginning. Four starters took the court with freshly shaved heads. Leading scorer Wright, who occasionally has a rather individualistic offensive mentality, wasn't down with that plan.
It started with sophomore Roderick Wilmont, who shaved his head to emulate the patron saint of the United Center, Michael Jordan. Most of the team followed -- but not Wright or subs Patrick Ewing Jr., Ryan Tapak or Mark Johnson.
So much for unifying gestures.
It was pretty much downhill after that. Minnesota played with a seize-the-day mentality, while the Hoosiers were in seize-the-throat mode.
"Every possession was so important, our guys played in that panic mode," Davis said. "This wasn't the team I saw the last two weeks that played so free and easy."
Indiana crawled back within two points with 15 minutes to play but then hit the wall. The more shots Minnesota made, the more Indiana forced shots at the other end. There would be no miracle comeback.
But it appears increasingly likely that Davis will come back for a sixth year as Indiana's coach. When asked about his status, Davis smiled and said, "Am I still coaching at Indiana?"
That's his way of saying that the pressure never goes away. But he sounds like a man who feels some security.
"My administration's been so supportive of me," Davis said. "[Athletic director] Rick Greenspan and I have a great relationship. He's my fourth athletic director in five years, but I always say he's the first one I've had in five years.
"You guys know the environment we had to play in," he said. "Imagine a young basketball team playing in that environment. These guys came to Indiana to play for me, so imagine someone playing under what they had to go through. It would be an insult to my administration to have to come out and say they support Mike Davis. I don't need those guys to come out. Indiana's better than that."
First-year athletic director Greenspan isn't making any pronouncements and says he wants to sit down with Davis for a customary postseason job review. But Greenspan's comments indicate a fairly solid degree of administrative support.
"I think even a neutral observer would have to say looking at the way we started the season and the way we've played late in the season, there's been an improvement," Greenspan said. "Today was a regression, obviously. We played like this was a first-time experience for our young players.
"A big part of my role is to modulate the emotions of the day. We'll step away from the emotions and make a good assessment," he said.
That assessment won't come until after Indiana's postseason tournament appearance is over. And no matter what Davis says, that's far more likely to be in the NIT than the NCAAs.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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