Inspired by its soon-to-be-ousted coach, Iowa is off to a surprisingly fast start
After they had ruined Kansas's 62-game home winning streak with a stunning come-from-behind 85-81 victory on Dec. 8, the Iowa Hawkeyes tried to do the hokey-pokey, the dance that retiring Iowa football coach Hayden Fry reserved for celebrating big victories. But they screwed it up. (Indeed, Fry came by practice the following day to instruct them: "First, you put your left foot in....") But getting to take a mulligan on the hokey-pokey isn't the only reason the Hawkeyes are on a mission to pull off another upset by winning the Big Ten championship. Coach Tom Davis's contract will not be renewed at the end of this season, his 13th in Iowa City, and his players are determined to send him out in a blaze of glory.
"We definitely have extra emotion this year," senior guard and Iowa native Kent McCausland says of the Hawkeyes, who were picked to finish near the bottom of the Big Ten but were 8-1 at week's end and ranked No. 21 after an 82-68 win over Missouri last Saturday. "In the locker room guys talk about how they want to do well for Coach Davis. It really feels like he's getting a raw deal. He has put together quality teams year in and year out, and we don't even have the best talent here in Iowa. Maybe he doesn't get all the credit he deserves."
True, the 60-year-old Davis has averaged more than 20 wins a year while going 257-131 at Iowa and hasn't lost a first-round game in eight NCAA tournament appearances. But a number of failings have created disaffection among the Hawkeyes' faithful, which is reflected in declining attendance (a decrease of 3,000 a game since 1990). The complaints center on soft scheduling, Iowa's failure to win a Big Ten title during Davis's tenure and the recruitment of players of questionable character, such as guard Chris Kingsbury, whose misbehavior in the mid-1990s included a conviction for public intoxication, poor grades and punching an opponent; and forward Sam Okey, a transfer from Wisconsin who was arrested for drunken driving in August, pleaded guilty, and is now awaiting athletic director Bob Bowlsby's decision on whether he can join the Hawk-eyes next semester.
Perhaps the most damning charge: When Iowa did produce a high school superstar, Raef LaFrentz, five years ago, Davis failed to sign him. "I don't know if it has ever been about winning," says Bowlsby of his decision at the end of last season not to extend Davis's contract beyond this year. "Tom has won a lot of games. It's been about advancing rather than maintaining."
Though Davis admits he was surprised by Bowlsby's decision to cut him loose, he won't discuss it. "To criticize the administration now would detract from what the team is trying to do," he says. "I'm just trying to focus on this season and enjoy it as much as I can."
So far there has been a lot to enjoy: A solid freshman class has provided enough depth for Davis to play nine guys for 14 minutes or more a game. Particularly pleasing has been the development of sophomore point guard Dean Oliver, who through Sunday was averaging 14-4 points and 5.8 assists a game, and the long-awaited return of sixth-year senior forward Jess Settles, who had 16 points and four rebounds against Missouri, his best performance since rejoining the Hawkeyes after a two-year hiatus necessitated by chronic back pain.
"I came back to complete a task, to win a Big Ten title for Coach Davis," says Settles. "We're not the favorites—there are four or five teams better than we are—but we have a shot because we play really hard and we're having fun. There's not a single guy who hasn't stepped up and made a big play."
Davis, a humble man not given to fiery pep talks, is moved by his players' fealty. "I really appreciate their loyalty," he says, "because loyalty is in short supply in this business."
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