Tuesday, March 13, 2001

Davis ponders uncertain future at Indiana

'Interim' coach put shattered program back together

AP Sports Writer

        It is never quite his time, his team, his job. It doesn't matter what Mike Davis accomplishes. It never seems to be enough. Following a legend is tough under the best of circumstances. Following Bob Knight at Indiana has made cleaning up after Puffy Combs look easy.

        Sunday should have been Davis' day. He didn't just pick up the pieces of a shattered basketball program, he made them fit. Davis took a team with no seniors, two returning starters and five first-year players to a 21-12 record, the final game of the Big Ten tournament and a No. 4 seed in the NCAA bracket. All season long, Davis coached with a red-sweatered ghost perched over his shoulder and whispers on every side of him that this game or that one would seal his fate. Sunday wasn't any different, with even network analysts chiming in.

        “I heard what Billy Packer said,” Davis said, referring to the CBS television analyst who worked the Big Ten title game, a 63-61 thriller won by Iowa. “I'm just happy he's not on the board of trustees.

        “I've done a wonderful job with this basketball team under the circumstances. This is the best seed we've had since 1993. One game is not going to hurt me. If so,” he paused, “then I'll go somewhere next year.”

        Brave words aside, Davis' future at Indiana — or anywhere else for that matter — is hardly assured. Knight, who hired Davis as an assistant in 1997, won three national championships and lasted 29 seasons. He can pick up the messages on his answering machine and have his pick of a half-dozen jobs.

        Davis can take the team he inherited deep into the NCAA tournament over the next three weeks and won't likely know for some time after that whether he will keep the first and only college head coaching job he's ever had.

        When the university's trustees slapped the label “interim” on Davis' office door, the only promise made was not to change a thing until the season was over.

        “I respect that,” Davis said. “I think I should be the head coach here next year, but I haven't asked them anything. Because they could have came in when we were 2-3 and said, 'OK, we're going to go in a different direction.”'

        Davis almost made the decision for them. After a tough start, Indiana lost a Dec. 22 game to Kentucky, and the strain Davis was under became evident. At a postgame news conference, he accused his players of quitting on him. Maybe, Davis went on, he “wasn't the man for the job.”

        The funny thing is his players always swore by him. They threatened to leave en masse if Davis didn't get Knight's job. More impressive than that, though, they finally learned to play for him.

        A bleak December stretch gave way to a bright stretch in January, when the Hoosiers upset then-No. 1 Michigan State and beat upstate rival Purdue. After blowing three sizable second-half leads in conference road games at Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, Indiana closed by winning nine of the last 12.

        Players who answered every question about the differences between Knight and Davis by saying there were none worth mentioning, began noticing the differences themselves. Davis' defense was the same as his mentor's, but the offense, while more structured, was less predictable.

        Kirk Haston, the 6-foot-10 center who had attempted exactly two 3-point shots in two seasons under Knight, heard Davis call his number in the huddle at the end of the Michigan State game and knocked down the game-winner. His number was called again at the end Sunday, but this time Iowa's Reggie Evans blocked Haston's last-second 3-point attempt.

        “It was bittersweet,” Haston said after the Hoosiers' No. 4 seeding took some of the sting out of the Iowa loss. “It made me realize we might as well enjoy this, too. Hey, life goes on. You have to move on. You can't sit and pout and dwell on a loss.”

        Davis should take those words to heart. Long after the Iowa loss, he was watching videotape, still stubbornly insisting that Haston had been fouled. But soon enough, Davis was ready to move on. He has his team peaking at the right time, playing fearlessly at the time of year when Knight no longer could control the distractions or their emotions.

        The Hoosiers haven't advanced past the second round of the NCAA tournament the last half-dozen years. But opening out West against Kent State, with the Cincinnati-BYU winner lurking as a second-round opponent, gives Davis a chance to put even more distance between himself and the red-sweatered ghost. That would let the board of trustees see what Davis has become — his own man.

        “I think toughness overcomes everything. As a player at Alabama,” he said, “I played extremely hard and I wanted to put my stamp on these guys. You can talk about it and talk about it, but you have to put guys in a situation where they can grow and I put these guys in that situation every day in practice.”

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