Wednesday, March 20, 2002|
Davis, Hoosiers enjoying Sweet last word
By Andy Katz
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- The pressure is off Indiana. Mike Davis isn't feeling any heat, either.
He's here, in the Sweet 16, with the quad-Big Ten champion Hoosiers; back where this program expects to be every March, but hasn't been since 1994. That's right, Mike Davis is coaching Indiana in the Sweet 16 against Duke. The Bob Knight vs. Mike Krzyzewski stuff doesn't apply anymore. This is Davis' team, his program and coaching era with the Hoosiers.
It's simply a remarkable change of events from a year ago when Davis was constantly in a storm of uncertainty, going from assistant to interim to limbo before he was named the permanent head coach in April of 2001.
"There's no pressure on us at all, none," Davis said. "All we've got to do is take care of business. But I feel good about it. We've just got to take our time and go out and play. Go inside on them and not make it a 3-point shooting contest. We're looking forward to it."
"They're a good team, a very good team. But they have been beaten," Davis adds. "If we keep it close then we can (beat Duke), too. We played Notre Dame, too, and won and they (the Irish) didn't do anything different against us that they did against Duke."
That's the basic analysis. Indiana has a chance, at least in Davis' eyes. If Notre Dame can push Duke to the brink of losing, ultimately falling themselves 84-77 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, then Indiana has a shot to do the same -- it not take it one step further and dethrone the champs. And it's hard to doubt him, so far.
Davis' turnaround and resilience has been one of the more astounding tests of stamina a first-time head coach has had to endure. From following Knight and ultimately losing to Kent State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament a year ago, to getting to the Sweet 16 just 12 months later, makes him the Comeback Kid in just one year.
"This feels good, real good because this is really my first full year," Davis said. "I don't count last year. It was just a year when we put things together and then lost Kirk Haston to the NBA draft. We come back and get a share of the Big Ten title. And now we make it to the Sweet 16. That's real special."
But it wasn't without a number of self-inflicted wounds to the public perception on his ability to handle a high-profile job.
Davis admittedly spoke too much, too often without thinking. He questioned if he should be the coach last season when the Hoosiers lost early in the season. He talked about how he hated Kentucky prior to playing the Wildcats. And that was just two of the more inflammatory quotes during a season of sound bites.
He told those in the media that too many times he just said what he feels, and wasn't used to being in a news conference situation. He was learning on the job, in one of the most watched jobs in the nation.
It didn't get any easier in the fall, even after Knight was hired by Texas Tech. Davis' deposition, under oath, in Knight's wrongful termination lawsuit against Indiana didn't help Davis with Knight's core group of fans in southern Indiana -- even if he ever had a real chance to win them over. Davis was interviewed on the subject of Knight being a bully, which Davis replied, yes. But that was clipped as a headline, making it seem like Davis was simply calling Knight a bully without giving the full details of the deposition. In the end, Davis was convinced that he had alienated even more ardent Knight supporters.
But not his players, who've stood by Davis from Day 1 of the post-Knight era. A player revolt nearly broke two years ago when Davis wasn't the immediate choice of the administration. But cooler heads prevailed, Davis was given the "interim" job and the Hoosiers have bonded into a Sweet 16 team over the course of 24 months.
"With the fans holding onto the legacy of coach Knight and the tradition he made, that just shows that if we build on the tradition he'll be treated the same way," sophomore forward Jared Jeffries said Wednesday of his coach. "Maybe 20 years from now it will be the same way about this team and this coaching staff."
Still, Davis' off-the-cuff comments finally got the best of him this season after losing to Butler on Dec. 29, the first time Indiana had ever lost a game in the Hoosier Classic. He called out the officiating, saying he had never gotten a fair shake because of who he was as a coach. He later said he meant as a young coach, nothing else, although the vagueness of the comment led some to believe in the media that he was talking about race -- something he flatly denied.
Regardless, he had gone overboard again and his team was 7-5 and on the surface struggling. A deeper look at the record would reveal the Hoosiers had played one of the tougher schedules in the nation and played two true home games before New Year's Eve.
"No one beat us that wasn't a good basketball team," said Davis. "It wasn't like we lost to Northern Iowa (which Iowa did). We lost to Southern Illinois, at Southern Illinois, and they're in the Sweet 16. We lost to Marquette in Alaska and they were a top 10 team. We lost to Miami, Kentucky -- two top 25 teams -- and we lost to Butler, a very, very good mid-major team."
But that might not be the way everyone viewed the Hoosiers entering the Big Ten. "I think the people who got down on us are the ones who didn't want me to be the coach," Davis said. "I wasn't disappointed in our record. If you had taken any coach with this team and gone 7-5 or 8-4 then that would be pretty good."
Davis contests that he is judged more so on every game and that some fans were "falling out of their chairs," when they lost to Southern Illinois -- a game, to his credit, Knight set up, but few high-majors would ever play on the road.
"It was a packed house, a crazy situation," Davis said. "But I'm judged on every single game and it's unfair. To some, I'm still not Coach Knight, but how can I be? It's my first year. The only way to erase some of that is to win a national championship. We have had a great year. We won 22 games, are in the Sweet 16 with a young team. Our only two seniors are Dane Fife and Jarrad Odle. This is pretty good for us."
Krzyzewski, now back in the good graces with his mentor in Knight, told the media Wednesday that the Indiana basketball program and university were fortunate to have Knight around for 30 seasons and that, "He set the stage for whomever followed, he set the standard, a high-level and high bar. And now Mike's putting his stamp on it."
That's high praise, albeit a quick quip, from a Knight protégé and easily recognized the best coach in today's game.
But this season changed for the better right after Davis' outburst. Instead of taking a one-game suspension for the Big Ten opener at Northwestern, Davis chose a $10,000 fine. His decision proved prudent as the Hoosiers won seven of their first eight league games.
Davis is adamant that the Hoosiers would have won the Big Ten title outright had Jared Jeffries not injured his thigh against Iowa and then his ankle against Louisville. The Hoosiers won both games, but Jeffries then sat out a one-point home loss to Wisconsin and, according to Davis, wasn't full speed in the three-point road loss at Michigan State or the eight-point loss at Illinois. Had the Hoosiers won one of the games, they would have moved ahead of Wisconsin, Illinois and Ohio State to claim the Big Ten title by themselves.
"He wasn't even full speed against Iowa (in a buzzer-beating loss to the Hawkeyes) in the Big Ten tournament," Davis said. "That's a big loss for us. Take Jason Williams off Duke and see what they do."
Davis didn't get the credit he deserved for beating Utah and Rick Majerus in round one, -- a first for Majerus in the NCAA Tournament. Yes, the Hoosiers caught a break when they played UNC Wilmington instead of USC in the second round, but the Seahawks proved no pushover as the Hoosiers ultimately held off UNCW to set up the matchup with Duke.
Through it all, Davis is as loose now as he has ever been this season. He finally signed a new contract that gives him four more seasons with a significant bump in salary. His name is being mentioned with the DePaul opening, something that he's not going to investigate but considers flattering. Had Bo Ryan not pulled off the implausible at Wisconsin and led the Badgers to a share of the Big Ten title, then Davis would have likely been Big Ten coach of the year. A year later, it's a different Davis, one who isn't saying too much, but when he does speak it's no longer drawing an unintentional shock.
"We're going to surprise people on Thursday," Davis said. "We get no credit for what we have done defensively. We kept Utah down (56 points). It's hard to beat Duke, but it's possible. Wisconsin got into the Final Four when no one thought they would. Anyone can say what they want, but the bottom line is we'll see what happens Thursday."
Indiana beating Duke would be a major upset. But Davis refuses to believe it's impossible. And, he's already pulled off the coaching upset of the season by outlasting his critics thus far, and getting Indiana back in the national mix quicker than anyone thought possible just a season ago.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.