Can Santa save Mike Davis' job?

Steve Hammer

As the Indiana University Hoosiers make the trip from Bloomington to the RCA Dome to face arch rival Kentucky on Saturday, the team bus may want to stop at Circle Centre Mall and visit with Santa Claus.

As the players wait in line to meet with Saint Nick, they could each think about what they need to make this year's team worthy of comparisons to fabled IU squads of the past.

A top 20 ranking? Already delivered. The IU team is ranked 17th in the nation, even after their defeat last week to Duke. A high-powered offense? Not quite yet, but they're getting there. Depth? Um, well, kind of. They defeated Eastern Michigan last week using just a seven-man rotation.

Stability at the head coaching position? Nope. Coach Mike Davis probably shows up at work each day with an empty cardboard box in case he gets fired. He's spent the last four seasons looking over his shoulder.

What do the Hoosiers need most? A little luck, that's what. Ever since Bob Knight's meltdown in September of 2000, the IU basketball team has been plagued by unlucky bounces, untimely mistakes and worse breaks than Al Gore.

The legitimacy of Davis' reign as coach is still questioned by some. Bob Knight continues to have followers in the state, although their numbers are diminished and his troops scattered. Despite signing a multiyear contract, Davis' future as coach has been threatened every time IU loses a game.

From exile in Texas, Knight has done his best to sabotage Davis. Knight said he was planning on firing Davis in 2000 and that he isn't much of a coach. Still seething at his treatment by the university that tolerated his tantrums for nearly 20 years, Knight's negativity casts a shadow over the basketball program even now.

He may have been a chair-throwing Napoleon with a beer gut, but Knight's presence in Bloomington and his successes on the court brought IU big money. The rich alumni who gladly wrote checks to the IU Foundation when the team was winning have put their pens down for the moment.

An appearance in the championship game didn't help Davis much, and neither did two-plus seasons of losing games, players and potential new recruits for the university. The Grim Reaper is still knocking on Davis' door, despite the fact that Davis has amassed 100 wins as IU's coach.

Things run in cycles and Davis has been the victim of changing times. Not that long ago, the words "Indiana basketball" conjured up images of humid high school gyms and single-class basketball. Knight and his Hoosiers were the royalty of the state. Knight's players always followed a strict dress code and were instructed to be polite even while being beaten savagely by their coach.

Now, those words stir up visions of Reggie Miller draining threes and Ron Artest leaping into the stands to exact vigilante justice. IU has lost its spot at the top of the food chain.

Think of it as Larry Bird having the last laugh.

You'll remember that he briefly attended IU before Knight's imperious manner and the big-city life of Bloomington drove him away. Now, his players maintain the state's attention while IU goes relatively unnoticed.

Things have started to swing the other way, though. Their heroic performance against Duke made even longtime skeptics like The Star's Bob Kravitz sit up and take notice. The game was also ESPN's most highly rated November game in the network's history. CBS will be covering Saturday's game from the Dome.

Marco Killingsworth has shown flashes of greatness in the young season and, even when he faltered last week, Australian forward Ben Allen, a 6-10 freshman, stepped up and scored 15 points.

Going into Tuesday's game against Indiana State (Oh! Irony!), the Hoosiers were 4-1 and shooting 56 percent from the field, an astonishing rate. Their defense no longer has gaping holes in it. They are a legitimate contender to not only make the NCAA Tournament but to go deep into it.

It may take at least another Final Four appearance for Davis to keep his job, so powerful are his detractors and so impatient the team's fans, who have come to expect impressive playoff performances every year and a national title every decade or so.

Davis had held the basketball program together, somehow, over the past two disastrous seasons but his employer's patience is not unlimited. He needs not only luck but some championship-caliber play from his squad.

Santa Claus may not be able to descend the chimney at Assembly Hall and deliver that to Davis, but it doesn't hurt to ask. Without it, he could join the 7.5 million people in this country without jobs.


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