Indiana Daily Student

The brink and back

Three months ago, IU basketball was in a tailspin. Now, it appears to have righted itself. That leaves just one question – what happened?

Coach Tom Crean greets students after a 70-55 win against Michigan State on Tuesday at Assembly Hall.
Coach Tom Crean greets students after a 70-55 win against Michigan State on Tuesday at Assembly Hall.

The police were called to the scene after midnight on Halloween, red and blue lights bouncing off the trees. A Jeep Liberty had hit a pedestrian and was now stopped on 17th Street, next to Memorial Stadium’s Gate 6. In the distance, Assembly Hall loomed.

Next to the Jeep, on the passenger side, a 19-year-old IU student lay on the pavement. A single streetlight shined down on him. From it hung a faded IU Athletics banner.

Three students who had been in the vehicle gave their names to the Bloomington police. One, 18 years old and 6-foot-7, took the blame. He said that he had been driving and that the injured man was a friend.

There was another ?complication.

Both students — the one on the ground and the one who said he hit him — were IU basketball players.

***

In the days that followed the accident, details emerged of how a freshman forward could have struck one of his own teammates with a Jeep and fractured his skull.

Emmitt Holt told police that he’d driven Devin Davis to the stadium parking lot and dropped him off. He was driving away on 17th Street with the other passengers, young women, when Davis suddenly jumped in front of the car.

Davis was rushed to IU Health Bloomington Hospital. Holt, only 18, was cited for underage drinking and for driving with a blood alcohol content over 0.02.

“Devin is not only a teammate but a great friend,” he said in a statement, “and it pains me to know that I have caused him harm.”

The accident was the strangest, and most devastating, setback in a series of troubles that plagued IU basketball in the last year. Taken together, the incidents raised questions about the stability of the team — and IU Coach Tom Crean’s ability to lead the program.

Last February, backup center Hanner Mosquera-Perea was arrested and charged with drunken driving. Four days later, an 8-foot-long piece of metal framing fell from the ceiling in an empty Assembly Hall and destroyed four seats in the lower bowl, forcing the postponement of that night’s game against Iowa.

It was fitting — the sky was starting to fall.

A month later, the Hoosiers were knocked out in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament and missed the NCAA Tournament. They weren’t invited to the NIT, either. Then came the exodus — eight players left the team before their graduation. In April, guards Yogi Ferrell and Stanford Robinson were arrested after they were caught using fake IDs to try to enter Kilroy’s Sports Bar. Then came Halloween weekend, with the accident and an ESPN report that Robinson and Troy Williams had failed drug tests and been suspended.

Nine months. Three arrests and multiple charges. Two suspensions. One lost season.

It had become an offseason on the brink. Six days before the new season began, the program was spinning out of control.

IU fans, notoriously demanding, grew restless. Calls for Crean’s job had been rising since the wins dried up, and the off-court issues only catalyzed those cries.

Then, the Hoosiers took the court, and the unexpected happened. They won. And they kept winning, entering the national rankings for the first time in more than a year. Last Thursday night, in a nationally televised game, IU blew out then-No. 13 Maryland before a loss at Ohio State on Sunday.

A program once on the verge of falling apart appears to have steadied itself. But the questions remain. How did the program tumble so disastrously and then regain its footing so quickly? What went wrong, and then what went right? And is the recovery ?sustainable?

***

Even before 2014’s issues, it has been a tumultuous 40 years for IU basketball.

Bob Knight won three national championships, but he also hit Kentucky’s coach in the back of the head during a game, was accused of assaulting a police officer in Puerto Rico, brought a donkey wearing a Purdue hat to his weekly television show, threw a chair across the Assembly Hall court, outraged feminists with insensitive comments about rape, mock-whipped a black player in practice, threw and shattered a potted plant near a University secretary, was accused by a player of choking him and screamed at an IU freshman for addressing him as “Knight” instead of his preferred “Mr. Knight.” When then-IU President Myles Brand fired him in 2000, students rioted, marched on Brand’s campus home and hung the president in effigy.

Then came Mike Davis, who almost won a national championship, but didn’t. Then came Kelvin Sampson, who resigned after major NCAA recruiting violations. A former player later said Sampson had allowed drug use to divide the locker room.

In April 2008, Crean was handed the reins of a program wrecked by sanctions and probations. A decimated program slogged through three years of losing before it leapt back to relevance with one shot.

Christian Watford’s game-winning 3-pointer against No. 1 Kentucky brought IU to its highest mark of the Crean era. When ball met the net that night, it shocked the fan base out of hibernation. It woke up hungry for the team’s first championship in more than 20 years.

The pressure came back to IU — it was time to win. Sports Illustrated covers and nationally televised games soon followed.

That tension built with each of the next two seasons, which had promise but ended without a title, and reached a boiling point when the team underperformed last season. It wasn’t enough — not when five national championship banners hung from the ceiling.

“Indiana fans don’t just want to win, they want to win a certain way,” said Dustin Dopirak, who spent five seasons covering IU basketball for the Bloomington Herald-Times.

“Winning the right way, there’s a lot of parameters to that according to Indiana fans ... they want to play like Bobby did. There’s a lot of pressure to deal with, and there’s a lot of pressure to do it exactly the way it’s been done before.”

Even more so, IU fans want that tradition extended. It’s why the Hoosiers wear candy-striped pants, why there was such an outrage at adding the Big Ten logo to Assembly Hall’s court and why players’ last names have stayed off the jerseys. It’s the very reason Tom Crean took the job.

“It’s Indiana,” he said at his first IU press conference. “I feel it’s the pinnacle, the absolute pinnacle, of college basketball.”

Bob Knight took IU to that pinnacle. Fifteen years later, his legacy still looms.

That expectation creates a disconnect between fans and players. IU’s fans might want the team to win like Knight did, but its players just want to play.

That’s how Jerry Meyer, director of basketball scouting for 247 Sports and one of the country’s top recruiting analysts, views it. Knight’s shadow might hang over the program, he said, but the players probably don’t feel the same pressure. They were still in grade school when Knight was fired.

“They don’t go to Indiana because Bobby Knight coached there and they won in the ‘80s,” Meyer said. “I would imagine there are a lot of kids that Indiana recruits that don’t even know who Bobby Knight is.”

IU fans seemed content with that disconnect when the Hoosiers were winning and staying out of trouble. When the wins came less frequently and the off-court issues piled up, it became a problem.

Since Knight’s firing, IU fans haven’t been shy about calling for change. Davis was chased out of Bloomington less than four years after taking IU to the national championship game, but the questions were different this time. IU fans weren’t just seeing losses. They were seeing arrests, suspensions and a 19-year-old player in serious condition.

The anger mounted — a Google search of “Fire Tom Crean” brings up more than 300,000 results, including at least seven Twitter accounts created solely to call for his job. Fans dialed into Crean’s weekly radio show to question the program’s leadership and his job ?security. When he was introduced before the season’s first game at Assembly Hall, boos from the crowd rose above the cheers.

The program was nearing rock bottom, and there seemed to be only one way out: Winning.

If IU found success, Meyer said, it could weather a couple off-court missteps.

“That’s all anyone cares about,” he said. “They care about winning.”

***

The latest string of off-court troubles started last February. A light snow was falling over Bloomington just before 5 a.m. when a police officer noticed a black Acura driving erratically. According to an IU Police Department report, the officer watched as the car drove south down Dunn Street, past Siam House and 420 smoke shop, before bouncing off one curb, then another.

The officer pulled the Acura over near Ballantine Road. Inside was IU basketball player Hanner Mosquera-Perea, his 0.15 blood alcohol content almost twice the legal limit. The officer arrested Mosquera-Perea and took him to Monroe County Jail, where he was charged with two counts of operating while intoxicated.

Tom Crean took to Twitter to announce that Mosquera-Perea had been suspended indefinitely.

“We are disappointed in him but also disappointed for him,” Crean wrote in a series of tweets. “He knows he made some terrible choices which have turned into big mistakes. Hanner has let his family, loved ones and our program down and knows that with choices come consequences.”

Mosquera-Perea missed just two games before returning to the court. He was scheduled to miss three, but Crean dropped it to two after the metal framing fell from Assembly Hall’s ceiling and postponed a game.

“The fact that Hanner’s suspension was initially three games and taken down to two — basically because the pile fell, he said that he shouldn’t be punished because the pile fell and the game had to be moved back — that took a little of the fear of God out,” Dopirak said.

The Hoosiers made it just 10 weeks before finding trouble again. Two more players, Yogi Ferrell and Stanford Robinson — both underage — were caught trying to enter Kilroy’s Sports Bar with fake IDs. They were turned away and arrested, each later charged with underage drinking and possession of false ?identification.

“We are aware of the two infractions with a couple of the guys on our team,” Crean said in a statement. “This is about poor judgment, selfishness of actions and disrespect for what this program stands for.”

Ferrell and Robinson were arrested in the offseason, so neither player missed a game. Crean didn’t reveal how they were disciplined.

Then came Halloween night, with Holt giving his statement to police and Davis lying on the pavement, below the IU Athletics ?banner.

In the hospital that weekend, Davis was surrounded by his family and Coach Crean. They celebrated when Davis was able to put together a sentence. His prognosis was improving. The future of the team was still uncertain.

That Monday, ESPN’s Jeff Goodman reported that Troy Williams and Stanford Robinson had failed drug tests and had been ?suspended.

At his weekly radio show, Crean fought to hold back the tears as he talked about how parents entrust him to watch over their sons. He acknowledged that Holt had made a mistake, but said he still cared about him.

“You don’t like the decision making, you don’t like how it gets there, you don’t like the action,” he said. “But you don’t stop loving the person.”

When the show went to commercial break, Crean squeezed shut his eyes and slumped back in his chair. The crowd didn’t seem to notice. Neither did a group of reporters in the corner. Crean ran a hand through his long black hair and sighed at the ceiling.

When the break ended, Crean’s composure returned. He sat up straighter, hands punctuating each word. Problems within a team weren’t unique to IU, he said. What made this situation different was it had reached the public.

“There’s things that go on with a team,” he said, the words flowing more freely. “It happened long before I got here, and it’ll happen long after I’m gone. It’s part of it. It’s part of college sports.”

He announced a four-game suspension for Holt and addressed the ESPN report.

“Stanford Robinson and Troy Williams — I was going to announce it in a couple days, but I’ll do it tonight — they’re going to sit for four games as well.”

His hands tapped on the table in front of him.

Crean said he didn’t know when the problems would stop.

“Am I saying that’s the last one? No. I wish I was,” he said. “I wish I was. I don’t know if it’s the last one. ?Nobody knows.”

Then came the call-in portion of the show. The show’s host welcomed a caller to the program and put him on the line. J.T. has a question about the team’s 3-point shooting, he said.

Except it wasn’t J.T. on the phone. Instead it was Tyler, a former manager under Crean. His question was simple.

“Why does Coach Crean still deserve his job?”

Crean froze. The room went silent.

The show moved on.

***

The opening tipoff of the new season was three days away, but IU was already ?losing.

Fans panicked. The team wasn’t projected highly in preseason rankings, and the players certainly weren’t acting like they had under Knight. His players didn’t get into trouble, fans cried, so why were Crean’s?

Dan Dakich, a former IU player under Knight, acted as the team’s interim coach between Sampson and Crean and now hosts a three-hour daily radio show in Indianapolis. In his first show after the accident — even before the reports of failed drug tests — Dakich said he was embarrassed by the rash of problems.

“Indiana players, you’re getting ready to get your coach fired,” Dakich said on the air. “I love Indiana basketball down to my core. It’s who I am. But not this crap — don’t tell me boys will be boys. That’s crap. This is the new Indiana basketball.”

Dakich didn’t want Crean fired. He argued that Crean deserved to keep coaching. And the season, he said, was not a lost cause.

“They win, the stain goes away. They lose, the stain gets bigger.”

***

After a disappointing early season home loss to Eastern Washington, the questions got even louder. An up-and-down nonconference run did little to ?quiet them.

IU beat a physical Pittsburgh team, then was blown out by Louisville in New York City. It took in-state supremacy with a win against Butler in Indianapolis, then lost in overtime to Georgetown, again in New York City. The Hoosiers opened the Big Ten season with a narrow win at Nebraska, then sleepwalked through a blowout loss at Michigan State.

Then IU put together its best stretch of basketball this season to win four Big Ten games in a row, knocking off two ranked opponents and winning a tough road game at Illinois.

The players that came ?under fire for off-court incidents were key to the ?turnaround.

Halfway through the season, Yogi Ferrell was among the Big Ten’s best players. Troy Williams was having a breakout season, drawing talk of his NBA potential, and Stanford Robinson and Emmitt Holt became valuable rotation players. Hanner Mosquera-Perea started every game before injuring ?his knee.

Devin Davis went back to Indianapolis to recover and rehabilitate. His teammates draped his No. 15 jersey over a chair while they practiced.

Crean’s coaching performance was now earning him praise as his best in his time at IU. He took a team picked to finish ninth in Big Ten preseason polls — a team that had no post presence and often played four guards at a time — to a 15-5 record ?in January.

He did so in style, with IU scoring more points than any team in the Big Ten and relying heavily on 3-point shooting to overcome a lack of size. The Hoosiers beat four ranked teams in five tries. IU entered the rankings itself, slotting in at No. 23 in last week’s polls, and backed up that ranking with a 19-point thumping of then-No. 13 Maryland.

It all goes back to Crean. The Hoosiers entered every game with a natural disadvantage — they’re small, and size can’t be taught — but found ways to win anyway.

Crean said he couldn’t pin down how his team made it through, but deflected credit to his players. The adversity bonded them closer together, he said, and they controlled only what they could.

Troy Williams put it more simply.

“We just stayed together through everything,” he said. “Throughout all that’s happened, we just know that at the end of the day, it’s still us, the only ones that’s in ?the gym.”

***

Hoosier fans are still holding their breath, waiting to see whether the turnaround is for real. Until then, IU is doing all it can to keep the focus on the court. Three months after IU basketball almost came crashing down, the storyline has shifted.

Now, at least on the surface, things are looking up. The Hoosiers are winning, and they’ve stayed out of trouble — at least publicly.

What truly goes on inside IU basketball and the Department of Athletics remains unknown. There are always issues within a program, Crean said, whether the public knows about them or not.

The team has steadied itself. It’s almost like nothing happened, like 2014 was a bad dream in Bloomington. But the Halloween night accident was just three months ago.

The questions remain, even if nobody wants to talk about them. After the Maryland win, Crean wouldn’t say the off-court issues were completely a thing of the past.

“No one’s sitting here thinking that,” Crean said. “Something could change tonight, right? You just have to deal with it. That’s all part of helping your guys grow up.”

The No. 15 practice jersey that once was draped over a chair in the IU locker room isn’t there anymore. Devin Davis has returned to Bloomington.

Though his recovery hasn’t allowed him back on the court yet, he’s been at practice and watched games from behind the bench. He’s challenging teammates to games of one-on-one.

For his part in the accident — and the chaos that followed — Emmitt Holt has moved on.

It took less than a month. After a breakout performance against Pittsburgh on Dec. 2, Holt sat at the press table, ready to answer questions. He talked about Davis’ family forgiving him, leaning on his teammates and growing as a man.

Then came the question, point-blank.

“Have you forgiven yourself yet?”

Holt didn’t hesitate.

“Yeah.”

Next question.

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