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Once nearly a champ, Mike Davis now burns to win one NCAA game

Fifteen years ago this month, Mike Davis coached a team that unhorsed No. 1 Duke in the Sweet 16, the Duke presumably destined for a second consecutive title. Eleven days later, Davis led Indiana into the NCAA championship game against Maryland in the Georgia Dome. He was 41. It was his second season as a head coach.

On Friday, Mike Davis coached a team that had no chance. His Texas Southern Tigers faced top-seeded North Carolina. If you’re a No. 16 seed, the one team you don’t want to be paired against it’s the Tar Heels, who are too big and too smart and too focused to trip over a mouse.

The final score was 103-64. It could have been anything. Texas Southern led twice — at 7-6 and 10-8. Carolina led 24-10 at the second at the second TV timeout. And that’s enough — too much, really — about the game.

The ol’ roundball can take odd bounces. Steve Fisher won an NCAA title and made three Final Fours at Michigan and wound up at San Diego State. As we know, Paul Hewitt took Georgia Tech to the 2004 title game. Within 11 years, he’d be fired by both Tech and George Mason. Larry Brown, owner of an NCAA and NBA title, landed at SMU. (Then, being Larry Brown, he quit.)

Davis’ career path is the oddest. He was pressed into service as Indiana’s head coach when school president Myles Brand fired Bobby Knight in September 2000. Years later, he conceded that he hadn’t been ready. Still, he looked pretty primed when the Hoosiers beat Duke and then Kent State and then Oklahoma to reach the NCAA final. You know the saying, “Fake it till you make it”? Davis had made it.

Then it came unmade. He left Indiana in part but not entirely of his own accord in 2006. It was no surprise he came back South — he’s from Alabama; he’d played for the Crimson Tide under C.M. Newton and Wimp Sanderson — and the UAB job seemed a soft landing. He lasted six seasons, winning 20 games four times, but reaching the Big Dance only twice. UAB athletic director Brian Mackin cited “an increase in apathy among our fans” as cause for the dismissal.

Five months he was canned, Davis took a job as interim head coach at Texas Southern, a historically black school in Houston. The Tigers play in the SWAC, annually among the lowest-rated conferences in Division I. Davis plied the interim position into a long-term deal by becoming the Bill Self of the SWAC — he’s 76-14 in league play over five seasons, having reached the NCAA three times. Once was in the First Four. (Lost to Cal-San Luis Obispo.) Once was as a No. 15 seed. (Lost to Arizona by 21.) Now this.

Davis was pragmatic, which you’d expect from someone who has looked at March from both sides now, in his postgame remarks. “We can’t let it take away from winning more games (23) than any team in school history and winning the conference tournament. North Carolina is just at a total different level.”

Then: “In our league, we’d have won this game today.”

Davis has made no secret of his goal for Texas Southern — to win in the NCAA tournament. Not to win the thing, mind you. Just one game. That’s part of the reason the Tigers played every game before New Year’s Day (13 in all) on the road. Some of it had to do with the school needing its basketball team to bank guaranteed-game money to support all the other programs; some has to do with Davis.

“If we don’t win a (regular-season) game against a Power Five school, it’s going to be very hard to compete in this tournament,” he said. “We always set goals; you have to know if those goals are real. (That’s why) we play Louisville and those guys.”

Louisville beat Texas Southern by 31. Arizona won by 22, Baylor by 27. (All are No. 3 seeds or better in this event.) The Tigers lost to TCU by 37, to Cincinnati by 38. But when they hit the SWAC, they burn rubber. Same sport, different worlds.

Asked about his personal NCAA tournament history, Davis: “What’s so special is that I understand the feeling (of competing at the highest level). I know what it takes. Tomorrow we get back (home), and I’ll be preaching and coaching about the effort you have to give. I know the feeling. They don’t know the feeling. And once we get in our conference, they forget it.”

If that sounds fatalistic, it probably shouldn’t. Davis likes what he has going in Houston. “We’ll be here again next year. If we don’t change the way we work, the results will be the same.”

As nice as it is to make the NCAA tournament, there’s no feeling like winning once there. That’s why Davis was disappointed when he saw the pairings Sunday. He knew his team would have face a No. 1 seed; he just wanted it to be after winning a First Four game against a peer. For the man who took Indiana within a game of a championship, that’s now the aim — to win one game in the Dance. Just one.

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