Frank Vogel's toughest challenge yet

This territory is foreign, a place Frank Vogel has never been.

Not when he loaded up his belongings in 1994 and left the Juniata College (Pa.) basketball team for the University of Kentucky to get coach Rick Pitino's attention in his pursuit to be a coach someday. Not when he sat behind the microphone at Bankers Life Fieldhouse the day he was named interim coach of the Indiana Pacers more than three years ago and confidently said they would make the playoffs, even though he was taking over a lottery-bound team that was worn down under former coach Jim O'Brien.

What looked like a team with the necessary pieces to make a run at a championship this season has turned into one that doesn't look like a contender anymore. You can even question whether it'll get back to the Eastern Conference finals for the second straight season because of internal issues.

"The magnitude we're going through now is definitely more than what I've ever gone through from a coaching standpoint," Vogel said. "It's kind of the same, too, from when I took over for Coach O'Brien in that there's a strong level of lifting guys up and pulling them back together on my part."

The Pacers have a chance to take control of their fate for the No. 1 Eastern Conference seed in the same arena Vogel sat in almost seven years ago to the day -- April 13, 2007 -- while serving as an advance scout for the Washington Wizards.

The Pacers can extend their lead over the Miami Heat for the top seed to 1½ games with a win Friday night at AmericanAirlines Arena. Indiana also has the tiebreaker over the Heat for the top seed.

For most of Vogel's time as coach, the Pacers weren't the ones being pursued; they were the ones pursuing. They played angrily, trying to earn the respect of other teams around the league. They no longer wanted to be known as the small-market team that couldn't compete with the big boys like Miami or Chicago in the Eastern Conference.

Vogel was the one leading the way, using whatever motivational tactics necessary -- such as showing clips from "Rocky" and "Major League" -- to get his players ready.

The Pacers finally vaulted to the top of the conference this season, fueled by a strong chemistry that complemented their talent. They were the NBA darlings, the ones many said would supplant the Heat in the East for most of the season. Vogel sat inside his office the day before flying to the All-Star Game in New Orleans nervous about what offense the Eastern Conference would run during the game and excited like a kid entering Toys R Us to have an opportunity to coach the East's best players.

But as Vogel returned from New Orleans, one question lingered about the Pacers: How would they handle adversity when they encountered it?

The Pacers have failed so far. Early-season success got to their heads. During their recent 8-12 stretch, selfishness and finger pointing have seeped into the locker room. About two weeks ago the team stopped talking about the top seed, something it had openly said was an objective most of the season, giving yet another indication of a team lacking confidence.

"I didn't think it would get as bad as it did," Vogel said. "But when we were winning at that level, I wondered if we would be able to sustain it because there's so many things that can knock you off track a little bit. Obviously, that did happen."

The ability to get the most out of his players is one reason Vogel has been able to successfully grow as a coach. But the goodwill surrounding the team before the All-Star break has receded, putting him in the position where his ability to hold players accountable has come into question.

"You don't have success in this league without being able to hold players accountable," he said.

Vogel made one of the most head-scratching coaching decisions of his young career when he held all five of his starters out of the Pacers' game against the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday. That suggested Indiana was conceding home-court advantage throughout the playoffs in the East. Vogel was spared the embarrassment of the decision when the Pacers' reserves squeaked out a victory over the lowly Bucks to move back into the top spot after Miami lost to Memphis the same night.

"Coach has remained positive, doing his best to keep us together and focused," center Roy Hibbert said. "The goal is still the same, to be in the position to win a championship."

"Being at the top has always been the most important," Vogel said. "People are critical of having an aspiration, which I still don't understand. The way you get there is by making sure you're playing at the highest level. We haven't been playing at the highest level, which is why I wanted to do something different.

"The talent we have here, the group intelligence we have here gives me a lot of confidence we're going to have a strong finish to the season."