Bloomington, Ind. – Indiana might be in desperate need of a couple of wins to earn its first NCAA Tournament invitation in three years, but IU Coach Mike Davis' team might be playing as care free as it has in recent memory.
While the pressure of getting those wins and thus earning an NCAA invitation is significant, it pales in comparison to the burden the team had been carrying most of the season while it was fighting for their head coach's job security. But with Davis' announcement 12 days ago that he'll step down at season's end, his team has been able to breathe a collective sigh or grief, if not relief.
"My decision is made and it's taken them a couple of days to overcome it," Davis said Monday. "Now, when you watch us play and see our guys you see a different team. Just the faces, the approach, the practices have been a lot better."
So has the play. Indiana ended a five-game losing streak with a 69-65 win over Penn State last Wednesday, then turned in one of its better performances of the year with a 78-71 win over No. 18 Michigan State Sunday. Those wins pushed the Hoosiers to 15-10 and 7-7 in the Big Ten, and suddenly the prospects of being included in the field of 65 isn't quite as bleak as it was a week ago.
Davis' decision to step down has not only eased the pressure on his players, but on himself as well. He's no longer concerning himself with what people are writing and saying about his job security, and he can instead focus on trying to orchestrate on improbable turnaround and getting this team into the postseason.
"Every possession isn't as big as it was," Davis said. "I am able to coach relaxed. Now there is no uncertainty about me and where I will be. Our guys understand that and I am able to just go out and coach and focus on winning. Over the last week or so, from just a practice standpoint and in the games, we have just been a different basketball team."
Davis' squad will get a chance to show exactly how different his team is Wednesday, when it goes on the road to face Purdue for an 8 p.m. game at Mackey Arena. While Purdue is just 9-16 overall and 3-11 in the Big Ten, Indiana remains winless on the road in six conference games. An Indiana win on the road would not only provide further evidence of an Indiana turnaround, it would move IU ever so close to feeling it is safely in the NCAA field.
"Our guys have had a different attitude over the last week, even in practice you can just feel the team getting back to where we were earlier," Davis said. "It's not about where you win the games, just how you play and the way you are playing. Right now, I just feel us playing pretty good."
The battle with Purdue will be a tall task not only because it's a road game, but also because it's a heated rivalry contest. Despite its 11th-place standing in the Big Ten, Coach Matt Painter has had the Boilermakers playing better as of late, and with no postseason to look forward to, a win over Indiana would undoubtedly be the highlight of their season.
"It's a hard-fought game no matter where it is played," Davis said. "I don't think our guys have understood at times how big a game this is."
It's a big game because of bragging rights, and it's a big game for Indiana's NCAA tourney hopes. Davis knows that, and he also knows that there are only a couple more opportunities to get those much needed wins before the NCAA field is announced a week from Sunday.
"We are sitting here now with 15 wins and we have three games left for sure with Purdue, Michigan, and the first game of the Big Ten tournament," Davis said. "I am not sure where we are (as far as the NCAA Tournament). I am just excited to be able to get the team back on track. Hopefully, we can win some more games."
A Weight Has Been Lifted
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