No quit in these Hoosiers

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 27, 2002

Sports Columnist

It’s the true story of a new basketball coach trying to do things his way in probably the greatest basketball state in the country. He’s not extremely popular with the local folk who are quite set in their ways. They know basketball around those parts and wouldn’t hesitate to remind this new upstart coach how things have been done around there for years.

He has the task of molding a group of guys into a team and instilling in them the belief that they can win. He aspires to bring them back to their glory days.

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The more they win, they will face teams that are bigger, faster, and perhaps more talented than them. But he knows that is when toughness, heart, and discipline will be necessary to win. And win he must, for he knows the locals won’t accept anything less.

For those of you who have seen the movie "Hoosiers", you know that is a pretty accurate description of Gene Hackman’s portrayal of the high school coach who took a tiny rural Indiana high school to the state title. If you haven’t seen it, you’ve missed an excellent movie.

But if you’d prefer to see a more contemporary version of a similar story, I suggest you tune in to this year’s version of the NCAA basketball tournament. Especially when the Indiana Hoosiers take the court.

Second-year coach Mike Davis, an Alabama native, has had more than his share of pressures to overcome in order to return the proud Indiana Hoosiers to national prominence.

Primarily, he has the misfortune of being the coach who replaced the irreplaceable Bobby Knight. The man who directed Indiana to three of its five national titles. He of the press-conference tirades, flying chair, and ever-present red sweater. "The General".

To help us here in football country understand what Davis must be going through, maybe we should talk to Ray Perkins for a while. You may recall he was the man who made the first attempt to fill the void left by the retirement of Paul "Bear" Bryant. He never was accepted in the job, because he changed things too much, and he didn’t compete for the national crown.

In some ways what Davis faced was worse. At least Bear chose to leave. Bob Knight was forced out after he showed an inability to control his temper. It really didn’t matter who the replacement was, whoever filled his spot on the Indiana sidelines would serve as a glaring reminder of the unceremonious absence of their coach.

Any failed tournament appearance, any lost game, any coaching decision they didn’t agree with, any lost recruit would only add fuel to the fire, and bring murmurs of "that ain’t the way Coach Knight woulda done it." You see, they know basketball around those parts, and they won’t hesitate to remind this new upstart coach how things have been done around there for years.

But despite all that baggage to carry, Mike Davis had one burden that was far more imposing. He has struggled for years to overcome a severe stutter, although you can’t tell it now. Davis has said that coaching basketball for Indiana, to him, is a breeze compared to speaking at a press conference. He has far more confidence in his coaching ability than his speaking ability.

By now, everyone, even the staunchest Bob Knight supporters, should have similar confidence in his ability to direct their beloved Hoosiers. Their trip to this year’s Final Four, in only Davis’ second year, has defined what "March Madness" is all about.

By making it to the coveted Sweet Sixteen, Davis and the Hoosiers were rewarded with a chance to play top-seeded Duke. The defending national champs retained four starters from last year’s squad and seemed poised for the repeat. When their lead over Indiana swelled to 17 points in the second half, it appeared the Hoosiers wouldn’t stand in their way.

But just as Hackmaner, Davis had taught them, this is when toughness, heart, and discipline would come in. The Hoosiers’ tough inside play got Duke into foul trouble, softening up their front line play, and relentless defensive pressure forced the Blue Devils into uncharacteristic miscues down the stretch.

Indiana clawed its way back until Tom Coverdale, a stereotypical Indiana hoopster, tied the game with two free-throws, then took the lead from Duke on a baseline jumper with 1:54 remaining. After Duke missed a three and was forced to foul, A.J. Moye hit two more free-throws to give Indiana a four point lead and the likely upset.

Then the unthinkable happened.

In this situation, you merely stand back and let your opponent shoot the three, and at best they still lose by one. But incredibly, as All-American Jayson Williams rose to shoot the desperation three, he was fouled by Indiana’s Dane Fife, the shot went in, and the ensuing free-throw gave Duke their only hope of survival.

Yet it was to be Mike Davis’ dream that would come true this time, as Williams’ attempt missed the mark and Carlos Boozer couldn’t convert on the put-back. Indiana had upset Duke 74-73.

Any concern about a let-down in the South Regional Finals against Cinderella Kent State was quickly put to rest as Indiana set a blistering pace early. The first eight three pointers that Indiana attempted ­ by five different players ­ ripped through the nets, setting the stage for a 15-of-19 performance from beyond the arc. That, along with possibly the most fundamentally sound exhibition I have ever seen, easily disposed of the Golden Flashes 81-69.

Mike Davis is one of the truly good guys. He deserves better than he’s got since taking over for Bob Knight. He deserves this. I’ll be pulling for them to win it all.

And who knows, if it comes to the final shot, maybe Ol’ Shooter will call the old "picket fence" play and Tommy (Coverdale?) will hit the winning jumper. (If you didn’t understand that, you’ve gotta rent the movie!)