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 INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - The Indiana Hoosiers face a tougher challenge than even the lowest-seeded teams in this year's NCAA tournament.
The opponent: themselves.
With questions, changes and clouds looming over this storied program, its once promising season has become a turbulent spectacle. A Final Four spot was once in sight. Now, the eighth-seeded Hoosiers would be happy with just a postseason win.
``I think we are starting off games not together, and I don't know what's going on with that,'' Big Ten player of the year D.J. White said. ``We got ourselves in trouble with that lately, so that is something we need to correct.''
Since mid-February, the Hoosiers (25-7) have faced a series of distractions.
It began with embarrassing NCAA recruiting violations alleged against former coach Kelvin Sampson, prompting a weeklong internal review by the school.
The day a recommendation on Sampson's future was due, the coach resigned. It led to a threatened player boycott and Dan Dakich's promotion to interim coach. That was followed by a player suspension and finally last week's shocking last-second loss to Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals.
The latest distraction was provided by the administration.
One day after the NCAA pairings were released, the school announced that a committee would conduct a nationwide search for a men's basketball coach.
By Tuesday night, the speculation began.
A Chicago radio station reported that former NBA coach Scott Skiles had already been contacted by the university, a report Skiles' agent, Keith Glass, denied.
``It doesn't make any sense from our point of view for that to come out and for the players, to be frank, it's pretty disrespectful,'' Glass told The Associated Press. ``I've never had any discussions with them about this, so I don't know where that's coming from.''
Still, the Hoosiers head to Raleigh, N.C., where they will undoubtedly face two days of intense questioning. If they're fortunate enough to win Friday against Arkansas, they'll have two more days of questions.
Nothing like opening the tournament talking about everything but play on the court.
``Not having coach Sampson around has been a big adjustment,'' White said. ``A lot of guys are used to him being around, but we are through that stage right now.''
It sure doesn't look that way.
Dakich is just 3-3 as interim coach, all against non-NCAA tournament teams.
Most troubling is the Hoosiers' poor play. They lack rhythm on offense, continuity on defense and have struggled early in games. At times they look uninterested, or worse, unmotivated.
It's exasperated Dakich, the longtime Bob Knight assistant and hard-nosed former Indiana player who has publicly backed his players.
But Dakich finds himself in a tough predicament, too.
``As an interim coach, there is a huge difference in how I would approach the whole pregame thing,'' Dakich said. ``But when you are 20-some games into it, you are kind of set in how you do it. Given the team has had success, you are a little reluctant to change something.''
Not that things haven't been changing all season.
The whole mess began two days after the team's first practice in October, when the university called a rare Sunday news conference to announce findings from an investigation into recruiting phone calls. School officials found Sampson had violated the recruiting restrictions imposed on him by the NCAA at Oklahoma, again for impermissible phone calls.
The NCAA isn't likely to rule on the case until July.
Initially, the players rallied. They opened the season 16-1 and were 4-1 during a brutal stretch that took them to Illinois and Ohio State before a three-game homestand against Wisconsin, Michigan State and Purdue.
The last game in that span was Feb. 19. Three days later, Sampson was out and the players threatened to boycott the next game at Northwestern.
It hasn't been the same since then.
``Defensively, at times, we turn it on and off,'' said Eric Gordon, the league's freshman of the year. ``Offensively, we haven't hit shots. We need to keep our team together and start the game the right way.''
Some fans now believe a loss in the NCAA tournament would finally put an end to the Hoosiers' most chaotic season in decades, perhaps ever.
White, one of the few players who has remained focused throughout these tumultuous months, isn't ready to finish his college career yet.
He just wants to see changes in time for a grand finale.
``We haven't been playing good ball lately, and we know that,'' White said. ``We just have to figure something out going into the tournament.''
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