March 18, 2006 in Sports

Since Davis’ decision, IU on roll

By and The Spokesman-Review
Brian Plonka photo

Today’s game will be Mike Davis’ last with Indiana if Gonzaga has its way. Mark Few has been rumored to be a possible replacement.
(Full-size photo)

SALT LAKE CITY – Rarely has there been a more obvious turning point in a basketball season than this year at Indiana University.

On Feb. 16, the Hoosiers had lost four straight games and six of their last seven, and were being written off as an NCAA tournament team. On Feb. 17, embattled coach Mike Davis announced he’d leave the program at season’s end – much to the elation of a state hysterical over hoops.

After another loss at Illinois, the Hoosiers then reeled off five straight victories to rescue their season, and now ind themselves in the NCAA’s second round against Gonzaga today at 5:10 p.m. PST.

Davis did what he did for one reason:

“The boys,” he said.

“It’s really hard to explain the pressure they had on them. As a coach I see it all the time. Since they know I’m OK, that I’m not bothered by it, they’re playing a lot better. Playing free. I’m having more fun coaching. The system is still the same, but now our guys are playing loose and free.”

Some of it is that they feel Davis has taken off the shackles.

“I’ve been taking some jump shots,” said Marco Killingsworth, the powerful post man who makes his living on the low block, “and just the look he gives you, it’s no pressure. It’s OK.”

Davis was hardly a favorite from the moment he assumed the job in 2000. His boss, Bob Knight, had finally worn out his welcome at the school with his off-court behavior and was dismissed.

He broke off contact with Davis when he stayed behind to take control of the program and much of the state seemed to continue to hold that against the new coach, even when he guided the Hoosiers to the national championship game in 2002, when they lost to Maryland.

Failing to make the NCAA field these past two years put an enormous amount of pressure on the program, and the threat of doing it again intensified the heat.

“It’s all about the boys,” he said. “When I made the decision, I made it with peace of mind.”

He made it in the hopes of repairing the rift in the Indiana basketball community, saying on the day he quit, “This is a great day in Indiana basketball – trust me, it is.”

He felt he’d accomplished what he set out to do the next home game, against Penn State.

“I felt the fans coming back and supporting the boys,” he said. “They need it more than I need it. Coaches get paid a lot of money to do this and it wouldn’t hurt my feelings or not, or make me feel any different about anyone.

“If you say something negative about me, that’s fine. That’s just your opinion. I can handle that. You don’t have to meet my conditions for me to like you. But young players are emotional and sometimes immature, because if they feel you’re not supporting them, it can affect them.”

It still might. Sophomores Robert Vaden and D.J. White are especially close to Davis, and there’s been speculation they’ll follow him to whatever school Davis lands at next.

Davis seems remarkably void of bitterness about the entire ordeal.

“Sometimes when I’m riding the bus to games,” he said, “I think, boy, how lucky I was to be the coach here at Indiana. This is a big-time program.”

Loyalty speaks for Few

Gonzaga head coach Mark Few has been mentioned in recent days as a possible successor to Davis at Indiana, but Bulldogs junior forward Adam Morrison made light of such a suggestion during Wednesday”s press conference.

“The only time the program ever felt he was going to leave was when Washington opened up (four years ago), but he decided not to,” Morrison said.

“I don’t think there’s a job out there that’s any better than the situation he has at Gonzaga.

“He likes Spokane, he just built a house, what else can you want? There has always been (rumors) about all our coaches, but I think they love coaching at Gonzaga, so … ”

When asked about looking into the Indiana job, Few said he would let his longevity at GU speak for itself.

“First of all, it’s not my doing,” he said of the rumors. “But again, like I am with my players, talk is cheap and truth is in our actions.

“I’ve been at Gonzaga 17 years now – just finishing up my seventh year as head coach. I think I’ve shown I’m in a great place and I enjoy where I’m at, and you know we’ve got a great thing going here now.”

Emotional grind

GU’s Morrison was asked whether he felt the Bulldogs could handle another taxing game against Indiana just two days after staging their emotional come-from-behind first-round win over Xavier on Thursday.

“I think the Maui (Invitational) tournament helped us for this kind of situation,” Morrison said.

“We played Maryland one day, and then we go triple overtime against Michigan State and then we have to turn right back around against, probably, the best team in the country – UConn – and get beat by two at the buzzer.

“It’s the NCAA tournament, now, so if you don’t have the emotion or energy to get up for this, you shouldn’t be playing basketball. I think we’re going to be fine.”

How about a breather?

The Bulldogs’ J.P. Batista is fed up with all the second-half comebacks he and his teammates have had to stage to win tight games this year.

“They’re killing me,” the senior center said of all the close calls.

He admitted there was a moment during the second half of Thursday’s 79-75 first-round win over Xavier that he had some doubts about whether the Bulldogs would make it all the way back from a nine-point deficit.

“I’m not a negative guy,” Batista said, “but at that point we were so far down that I started thinking, ‘This is going to be my last game.’

“But my mom taught me to stay positive, no matter what the situation is, so I starting saying, ‘We’re going to win this game – point blank.’

“You just have to fight through all those low points, which we did.”

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