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On the Skids
What has happened to Indiana? Two years after going to the national championship game, the Hoosiers were 7-6 (1-1 in the Big Ten) and in danger of having their first losing season in 34 years. They had lost three games by 30 or more points this season and were ranked last or next-to-last in the conference in nine statistical categories. In losses earlier this month to Temple and Wisconsin, they scored just 19 and 15 first-half points, respectively, and finished with 50 or fewer points in back-to-back games for the first time since 1949.
Still, Hoosiers coach Mike Davis, an optimist by nature, is convinced that his team can turn things around, and on Sunday, Indiana showed some signs of life with a 59-57 win at Michigan. "If we were executing well and doing everything right and were still getting beat badly, then I'd say, Man, it's going to be a long year," Davis says. "But we just haven't executed like we do in practice. We've had moments in games when we've played well, so it's just a matter of putting it all together."
In order for Indiana to avoid missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 1984-85 season, it must shoot better. The Hoosiers were hitting just 39.5% of their shots from the field at week's end, and aside from sophomore guard Bracey Wright (20.2 points a game), they didn't have another consistent scoring threat.
How did the talent pool get so dry? Jared Jeffries departed for the NBA following his sophomore season two years ago, and another member of that class, 6'4" guard Andre Owens, transferred to Houston, where he was Conference USA's second-leading scorer through Sunday (18.3 points a game). After a loss to Kentucky on Dec. 22, 2001, Davis memorably proclaimed that "help is on the way," but that recruiting class has not panned out beyond Wright. Sophomore point guard Marshall Strickland was another highly touted recruit, but he was averaging just 9.3 points a game and had almost as many turnovers (31) as assists (34). A knee injury to 6'11" junior center George Leach, who returned to the lineup on Sunday after a nine-game absence, left Patrick Ewing Jr., a 6'8" freshman, as Indiana's most effective big man.
After several misses last year—Davis came close to landing Luol Deng (who signed with Duke), Kris Humphries ( Minnesota) and Charlie Villanueva ( UConn)—the fourth-year coach has put together one of the top classes in the nation for next year, including 6'9" forward D.J. White, whom Davis says could average 14 points per game on this year's team. However, the most highly regarded of the Hoosiers' recruits, 6'9" forward Josh Smith, is widely expected to enter the NBA draft, even though Davis is optimistic that Smith will make it to Bloomington. "People say he's 100 percent gone, but that's not what Josh and his parents have told me," Davis says. "Why wouldn't he want to come here and win a national championship like Carmelo Anthony did?"
Though Indiana appears to be a long way from contending for a national title, athletic director Terry Clapacs says that Davis's job is safe. Still, Davis knows that Hoosiers fans can be impatient. "It's tough to see your team fall apart in games, but as the coach it's my responsibility to keep that from happening," Davis says. "If the blame is going to be put on anyone, it's got to be put on me."
Late last Saturday night, after leading No. 7 Kentucky to a 75-63 win over 20th-ranked Vanderbilt, senior guard Gerald Fitch sat in the Wildcats' locker room and rolled up his sleeves, revealing his biceps, which bore the tattoos (a gravestone and a line in script reading, DEAR GERALD, I HAVE ANGELS WATCHING OVER YOU MY BROTHER) that he got in memory of his older brother, George, who was fatally shot during the summer of 1998. "I still feel the way I felt when it first happened," Fitch said of the shooting, his eyes looking toward the floor. "It's a tough thing to deal with, but I use it to make me stronger."
Fitch's inner strength has been evident this season as he has transformed himself from one of the nation's best rebounding guards (4.1 boards per game over his career) to an offensive star. After averaging 9.4 points per game over the last three years, Fitch was ranked sixth in the SEC through Sunday with 17.6 points per game. Fitch has also become a team leader instead of a magnet for trouble.