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For Indiana coach Mike Davis, last Saturday's matchup against Kentucky in Indianapolis's RCA Dome wasn't just a game, it was also a trial. In the eyes of some critics Davis's crimes against the state include his failure to sign the top high school prospects in Indiana for three straight years and to make the NCAA tournament in the last two. (Yes, Davis made it to the NCAA championship game with the Hoosiers in 2002, but athletic director Rick Greenspan has made it clear that Davis's continued employment will depend on Indiana's earning an NCAA bid this year.) The drumbeat for the coach's head picked up on Dec. 6 when the Hoosiers, whom Davis had declared "the best team I've had" at Indiana, lost 72--67 to middling Indiana State. Most egregious of all, Davis had not beaten hated Kentucky in five tries.
Fortunately for Davis, he wasn't the only one on the Indiana sideline with something to prove against the Wildcats. Marco Killingsworth, a senior power forward who had more than 1,000 points and 500 rebounds in three seasons at Auburn before transferring to Indiana in the wake of Cliff Ellis's firing, had never beaten Kentucky either. After he had 23 points, 11 rebounds and four assists in Indiana's satisfying 79--53 thumping of the Wildcats, Killingsworth draped his arms around Davis's neck and whispered in his ear, "We finally got those jokers." Though the victory may not ultimately save Davis's job, it should gain him some breathing room.
"This win meant the world to Coach," said sophomore guard A.J. Ratliff, who scored 21 points in his first start since breaking his right thumb in October. "He had us more prepared for this game than for any since I've been here. We must have watched film of Kentucky six times."
In practice last week Davis emphasized defense, to great effect. The Wildcats, who had made better than 50% of their shots against Indiana in their last five meetings, shot just 31.1% from the field. From beyond the arc, where Kentucky had been hitting at a 40.4% clip this season, the Wildcats missed their first 20 shots and finished 2 for 27. Meanwhile, Indiana shot 53.3% from the field, ending Kentucky's 32-game streak of holding opponents to less than 50% shooting. "The difference today was that we played together," said Davis. "We shared the ball and were defensive-minded."
Nobody was more defensive-minded than Killingsworth, who got an earful from Davis after a confounding 10-point, seven-turnover performance against Indiana State. He had been brilliant six days before that in a 75--67 loss to Duke, scoring 34 points against Shelden Williams, the national defensive player of the year. "Coach told me that everyone knew I could play offense, but I needed to prove I could play defense," says Killingsworth. "He said an NBA scout told him that if I can play defense and play with energy, I could be a lottery pick."
After the Indiana State loss Killingsworth made some changes to his diet, cutting out sugar, drinking extra water and eating little but salads for the rest of the week. He dropped from 264 to 255 pounds in three days and, with his lighter frame, found new vigor on defense. None of the four Kentucky players who tried matching up with him scored more than two points. "I thought Marco played his best game for us," said Davis. "We go as Marco goes."
Indiana (5--2 at week's end) should get even stronger beginning with its next game, against Charlotte on Dec. 19, when 6'9", 242-pound forward D.J. White, who was last year's Big Ten freshman of the year, rejoins the team. He's been sidelined with a broken left foot, but his return has the Hoosiers excited. "Getting the chance to play with D.J. was one of the reason I transferred here," Killingsworth said after Saturday's win. "The fact that we won today without him says a lot. It says when he comes back, watch out for Indiana."