INDIANAPOLIS — With one quick sentence, Mike Davis took away Indiana’s biggest distraction. Since resigning last month, the Hoosiers have been a different team and Davis looks like a more content man.

He smiles, laughs and jokes more frequently. He even chatted with radio play-by-play announcer Don Fischer during last week’s Big Ten tournament games.

And the constant pressure-cooker that surrounds Indiana’s basketball coach is no longer a big deal for Davis. What he’s done is revert to his more natural coaching instincts, which has allowed his players to concentrate on what they do best — play basketball and win games.

“This is the way I should have coached all the while, no matter what people thought or said,” Davis said last week. “Just focus on having fun and not putting so much pressure on our guys.”

The changes on the court have been obvious.

During a recent five-game winning streak, the Hoosiers rallied from halftime deficits three straight times, won their first two conference road games and nearly reached their first Big Ten tournament championship game since 2001.

They’re playing harder, winning more consistently, and enter tonight’s first-round tournament game against San Diego State with one mission: To send Davis off in grand style.

“He’s the only coach I’ve been around who really cares about you,” forward Marco Killingsworth said. “It’s not just about basketball. I think, personally, that Indiana, the school, is really missing out because he’s in the trenches with all of us.”

For most of Davis’ six seasons in Bloomington, he’s been tormented by the circus environment in a state where basketball is considered more religion than novelty.

Every time a new rumor surfaced, Davis grumbled. Every time his players were booed, he complained. When mistakes were made, he assessed blame, and when people asked him to be honest, he was — often to his own detriment.

That’s not the case any more.

In the month since Davis announced he would step down after the season, he has seen a team that put behind it an agonizing midseason swoon. The questions about whether Davis would return next season have been replaced by questions about who will take over, a much more muted distraction for now.

Even the protests from hometown fans have long been forgotten now that the Hoosiers have managed to fight their way into the NCAA tournament for the first time in three years.

What happened? Davis’ decision helped change the team’s perspective.

“We’re really pulling together as a team and playing hard,” guard Errek Suhr said. “We’re doing it for coach, but he’s not the only one we’re doing it for — we’re doing it for the fans.”

A month ago, none of this seemed possible.

When Davis made the announcement on Feb. 16, two key players, Robert Vaden and D.J. White, immediately walked to the podium and said they would probably transfer next year. Coming in the midst of a four-game losing streak, it appeared to be the last blow in a promising season that had gone terribly wrong.

Then Indiana lost its next game at Illinois, and it all looked downhill.

But since then, the Hoosiers have shown their mettle. They closed the regular-season with four straight wins, and knocked off Wisconsin in the Big Ten quarterfinals to secure their NCAA bid. On Saturday, they rallied from a late nine-point deficit against then-No. 7 Ohio State before missing two potentially winning shots in the last five seconds.

But that has not shaken the players’ confidence — or their desire to keep Davis around a little longer.

“It’s an honor to play for him,” said Roderick Wilmont, who missed the last shot against the Buckeyes. “This team has fought real hard to get where we’ve gotten. Four weeks ago, we could have let the season go, but we’ve fought hard.”

Davis attributes the improvement to a more relaxed approach that has helped him become a better coach.

“Before, I was trying to coach every possession,” he said. “You know, you get upset with them because you want them to do what you want them to do so badly. ... It’s been a great, great process that I’ve developed.”

What the future for Indiana — or Davis — holds remains uncertain.

White has backed off slightly from his threat to transfer, while Vaden will try to play through a left ankle injury that kept him out for the final three minutes Saturday.

Davis, meanwhile, has talked about unifying the fan base that split when Bob Knight was fired in September 2000. As for his own future, Davis isn’t certain what he’ll do.

But this week none of that is a concern. There’s still basketball to be played.

“The guys on this team, really love the game and when it comes down to it, that’s all that matters,” guard Marshall Strickland said. “We play with passion.”

Davis couldn’t have asked for anything more.

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