Alexander back for UDM loss; little said about absence

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Detroit Mercy head basketball coach Bacari Alexander instructs his players during a timeout.

Detroit — With very little fanfare, and seemingly trying their best to act as if nothing had happened, Detroit Mercy officials welcomed head men's basketball coach Bacari Alexander back to the bench Wednesday night.

Following a seven-game absence — a suspension over unspecified "personnel" matters — there was a spiffily-dressed Alexander, prior to the game against Toledo at Calihan Hall, presenting star senior Jaleel Hogan a trophy basketball for reaching the 1,000-point club.

Then, during pregame introductions, Alexander received a light, cordial applause from the small crowd on hand on this chilly December evening.

In his return to coaching, Alexander saw his Titans fall to the Rockets, 89-86, on a Toledo prayer 3-pointer at the buzzer after Detroit Mercy had come roaring back from 13 down with 5 minutes left to tie it with 3 seconds left.

More:Bacari Alexander remains MIA as intrigue grows at UDM

Alexander showed a calm demeanor in the opening moments. On one early, defensive possession, he calmly clapped and told his players, "Lots of guys talking, lots of guys talking."

That's interesting, given nobody — not the university president, not the athletic director, absolutely nobody affiliated with the school — has been willing to say a peep about why Alexander has been M.I.A. since the Michigan-Dearborn home game Nov. 13, leaving the fan base in the dark for more than three weeks.

Even in issuing a statement at midday Wednesday about Alexander's return, Detroit Mercy didn't send a release out to all media outlets. An athletic-department spokesman was ordered only to "provide the statement when asked."

After the game, Alexander, upbeat despite the crushing defeat, wouldn't go into why he was away from the team, but repeatedly thanked the university, a private institution, for keeping the whole saga just that, private.

"First thing's first, it's great to be back in Titan territory," Alexander said in starting his postgame press conference.

Then came a steady stream of questions, not much about the game, but about his absence.

* How tough has the last three weeks been? "It's one of those situations, whenever you're away from your group, it's always one of those processes where you want to be in the trenches doing the day-to-day stuff. Athletics and coaching is not an occupation, it's a lifestyle. You kind of live it, breathe it. ... It wasn't so much the challenge from the standpoint of not being able to do it. I always knew I would return."

* You never worried about losing your job? "What I can tell you is that, there was no doubt that I was gonna continue to be the head coach of Detroit Mercy for now and the foreseeable future."

* What have you done for the last three weeks? Have you kept in touch with players, coaches, etc.? "I'm not at liberty to talk, but what I will say is the limited communication I was able to have, I couldn't be more pleased with the job that was done. Jermaine Jackson (interim coach), my goodness, he and my other assistants ... have all done a great job of keeping me in tune with what's happening."

* Has this whole saga been a learning experience for you, as much as you can say? "At the end of the day, any time that you are away from your group ... in a perfect world, you would love for something in terms of time away from your group to have it in the offseason primarily. In season, it's atypical. I think what you get is for an opportunity for a lot of people to kind of grow."

Alexander said he returned to practice Tuesday, and "it was like we never missed a beat."

When pressed for why, exactly, he was suspended, he disputed the term "suspension," but didn't offer another term. He did not elaborate, though he called the matter "personal," while the university has repeatedly called it "personnel."

Among the few details known about the suspension: It was university-sanctioned; neither the NCAA nor the Horizon League were involved.

Alexander, 41, who grew more vocal and animated in the second half of Wednesday night's game, first missed the Michigan-Dearborn home game Nov. 13 with what the team’s radio broadcast termed that night a one-game absence for a “personal” reason. He then missed the next three games, all road games, and the university reclassified the reason as a “personnel” matter.

Alexander missed seven games in all, most recently the 106-73 road loss to UCLA on Sunday. During the extended absence, he didn’t attend practices, nor did he travel with the team on the road. He didn't return repeated messages from The News, and his cell phone went right to voice mail for several days straight.

Missing the UCLA game had to be tough for Alexander, given he was a player on the Detroit Mercy team that stunned UCLA in the 1999 NCAA Tournament. But returning now at least will allow Alexander to coach in two games he most certainly had circled on his calendar, Saturday at home against Western Michigan, and Dec. 16 against Michigan at Little Caesars Arena. Alexander was an assistant coach under Western Michigan's Steve Hawkins from 2008-10, and he was on John Beilein's staff at Michigan from 2010 until getting the Detroit Mercy job in April 2016.

Detroit Mercy has begun scheduling Western and Michigan again, given the relationships between Alexander and those schools.

“The university is happy to have coach Alexander back with us and leading this team,” athletic director Robert Vowels said in a statement. “We are thankful that this internal personnel issue is now resolved and we look forward to coach Alexander’s return and a successful season.”

Vowels didn’t return a phone call or a text message seeking additional comment Wednesday.

Jackson, a holdover from Ray McCallum’s Detroit Mercy staff, as well as Alexander’s former roommate during their playing days at Detroit Mercy and a member of Alexander's wedding party, was the interim coach and led Detroit Mercy to a 4-3 record in Alexander's absence. That included a couple of impressive games that featured late-game heroics, against Houston Baptist in overtime and Saint Louis.

Jackson, following a victory over Division II Siena Heights last month, wouldn’t talk much about the Alexander situation, or his situation.

“All Jermaine Jackson can do is take an everyday approach to life,” he said. “Like when I played ball, my approach every day was a one-day contract.”

Like after the Siena Heights game, Detroit Mercy athletic-department officials didn't make players available to talk after Wednesday night's game.

Alexander arrived at Detroit Mercy in April 2016 following six years as an assistant coach at Michigan. The Titans were 8-23 in his first season, and expectations were very much increased entering this season, as Detroit Mercy, with some serious offensive firepower, was picked to finish fourth in the Horizon League.

The Titans now are 4-5 after Wednesday night's loss.