Indiana is down, but not out

Mike Davis had an appointment for 11:30 a.m., but he was too busy to make it on time. No surprise there. His Indiana team has lost to Wake Forest by 33 points, Kentucky by 39 and Wisconsin by 34. This is a coach with a lot to fix. An extra two hours in a staff meeting couldn't hurt.

Davis, not long ago, spent just short of 50 hours at the peak of his profession. His surprising Hoosiers defeated Oklahoma in the 2002 Final Four and prepared to play for the NCAA championship. Their decline since losing that game to Maryland has been gradual but profound. And, probably, inevitable.


The scars burned into the program by the problematic firing of Bob Knight have emerged, and they will need time to heal completely. Davis will feel most of the pain during that process. He has the ability to survive, but only by accelerating his education as a coach.

Consider all the accomplishments of Davis' Hoosiers in his first three seasons: defeating No. 1-ranked, Final Four-bound Michigan State in January 2001; reaching the 2001 Big Ten Tournament finals; sharing the league's 2002 regular-season title; claiming the NCAA Tournament's 2002 South Region title; winning the 2002 Maui Invitational over a field that included Kentucky and Gonzaga; compiling an 11-6 record in March tournament games. With all this to his credit, Davis gathered a recruiting class in November that ranked either first or second nationally, depending on your analyst of choice.


As this Indiana team opened 6-6, however, critics were shoving aside those accomplishments to allege he can't coach. Some are impatient Indiana fans, typically as intolerant of rebuilding as those of any major program.

Many are insurrectionists loyal to Knight and emboldened by the Hoosiers' recent struggles. To them, Davis is the last vestige of the regime that deposed their hero. Davis didn't fire Knight, but it's enough that he was the successor chosen by those who did.

And some are skeptics who believe Davis did not pay the necessary dues to gain such a prestigious job. That list includes some of his coaching colleagues. And they're right. He was a Division I assistant for only five years before the Knight situation combusted and Davis took over as interim coach.

He faces a dynamic encountered in recent history by only two other men, Steve Lavin at UCLA and Matt Doherty at North Carolina.

Both landed in an elite college job with little (Doherty) or no (Lavin) experience running his own program. Neither, despite various successes, still is in coaching. So this is a perilous position for Davis.

Some of Indiana's current crisis can be blamed on Davis. Opponents feasted on the negative recruiting material Davis handed them with his emotional public outbursts and guileless responses to loaded media queries. (When asked the day before the 2002 national championship game if he wanted to someday coach in the NBA, the proper response was not "Yes." It was, "We've got a game to play Monday night.")

Davis also initially failed to place enough emphasis on recruiting. His first full class featured high-level guard prospects, including star Bracey Wright, but no promising frontcourt players. His second class didn't have a top recruit in either area. The recruiting concerns obviously have been addressed. And Davis has done a better job of tempering his public pronouncements.

Much of what has gone wrong, though, was beyond Davis' control. Of the players who would be seniors this season, guard Andre Owens transferred; star Jared Jeffries left for the NBA two years early; center George Leach missed most of the pre-conference season with a knee injury; and 6-foot-3 A.J. Moye, as a result, has played out of position at power forward.


Knight's placement on a "zero-tolerance" warning in May 2000 and subsequent firing that September essentially wiped out recruiting that year, which helps explain the marginal contributions from juniors.

The Hoosiers might have endured these concerns if they played a more reasonable schedule, instead of one befitting a cash-starved Atlantic 10 program desperate for attention and an attractive RPI rating.

IU's Assembly Hall has 17,257 seats, and most are filled on game nights. But there were only five nonconference games there this season. Only four of IU's opponents operate below the major-conference level. Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky and Kansas, which entered the season with top 20 rankings, all have at least five opponents in that category. The schedule reflects no sense of Indiana's development.

These Hoosiers will continue struggling while playing five of their first seven Big Ten games on the road. That imbalance likely will inflict further damage on the team's lagging confidence. Sophomore guard Marshall Strickland, expected to be a solid, consistent scorer, is hitting 44.1 percent of his three-point attempts in home games and 10.5 percent on the road.

Davis says his players tend to "lose concentration" in difficult situations. There will be more of those occasions this year. But now is not the time for panic at Indiana. The Hoosiers went from a coach with three decades of experience to one with none. Who could have expected an effortless transition?