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Inside College Basketball

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 Hawkeyes 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."

New Mexico State

As surprising combinations go, it may not rival the merger of AOL
and Netscape, but New Mexico State's friendly takeover of
Northeastern Illinois has to be unprecedented in the annals of
college basketball.

With only four players returning from last year's 18-12 team,
Aggies coach Lou Henson--unable to troll the junior college talent
pool because of NCAA sanctions stemming from a 1996
academic-fraud case that cost former coach Neil McCarthy his
job--was desperate for veteran help. When he learned that
Northeastern Illinois was disbanding its team for financial
reasons, Henson hired Golden Eagles assistant Thomas Trotter,
whom he knew from his 21 years of coaching Illinois, and Trotter
brought along four of the five players who would probably have
started for Northeastern Illinois this year. Henson added a
fifth, Zachery Norvell, last week.

So far Henson's experiment of blending the veteran Aggies
frontcourt of Charles Gosa and Aaron Brodt with the ex-Golden
Eagles backcourt of transfers Billy Keys and Brad Bestor, along
with freshman Eric Channing, a third guard, has been enough of a
success that New Mexico State was 5-4 at week's end (including a
win over Wisconsin and the Aggies' first sweep of UTEP in eight
years). "We still have a lot of work to do, but we're meshing
very well," says Henson. "I think we'll get better."

As delicate as Henson's task has been this year, it doesn't
approach what he faced last year, when he agreed to take over at
New Mexico State after the bitter ouster of McCarthy. Acting on
just two days notice, Henson agreed--for $1 a month--to step into
the breach at his alma mater, where he had previously coached for
nine seasons. For his troubles he had to deal with three key
players who remained loyal to McCarthy. "Last season there was a
lot of animosity," says Gosa. "This year there could be some, but
if everyone just listens to the coaches, we'll be fine."

COLOR PHOTO: JONATHAN DANIEL J.R. Koch made Missouri feel rejected as the Hawkeyes routed the Tigers and improved to 8-1.