Senior guard Justin Bocot has watched his team play without him before, but the circumstances were much different the second time around.
Bocot sat out during his first year at SIU because his grades didn’t meet NCAA standards, and he recently served a four-game suspension while under investigation for a sexual assault he was later cleared of.
He said both events made him realize how seriously he needed to take life.
“It was a crazy situation, but I just came back, and still give it my all,” Bocot said. “People know me and know what type of guy I am.”
Junior guard Kendal Brown-Surles used to live with Bocot and said he considers Bocot one of his closest friends. Brown-Surles, who was in a similar predicament with his academics earlier this season, said he noticed an immediate change in Bocot’s normally laid-back personality as a result of the investigation.
“It had a big effect. It just shows that people will sometimes go out there to try and get you, no matter what the situation is,” Brown-Surles said. “I always had his back, and I’m still going to hold my ground with that. But it hit him hard, and it was definitely a life changer for him.”
Bocot said his mother Heidi came down to support him when the news of the investigation broke, but he also leaned heavily on his teammates and head coach Chris Lowery.
“I don‘t really have a father. (Lowery) kind of stepped in and he helped me through it,” Bocot said. “He helped me through the whole thing because I didn’t really have anyone down here.”
But Lowery said Bocot struggled on the court after he was reinstated Dec. 22, and the effects of the investigation and the time off still lingered with Bocot.
“He‘s a good kid. Unfortunately, he went through some tough things this year that were not characteristic of his nature, and it’s hurt him,” Lowery said.
Lowery said it was a very depressing time for Bocot because he wasn’t able to say anything about the investigation.
In the nine games he’s played since the suspension, Bocot averages 16 minutes and 5.5 points per game. Lowery held him out of the 86-71 victory against Illinois State Jan. 1 because he said he wanted to give the younger guys a shot to play.
“(In) Hawaii, I just got back in there and it felt kind of good, and then coming back, I think I just had a bad game,” Bocot said of his two-point performance in the Dec. 29 loss against Evansville. “Seniors can’t do that. Leaders can’t do that. I don’t need to have that bad of a game at any time in the season.”
Working his way back onto the court is nothing new to Bocot. After several colleges recruited him out of Bloomington High School for basketball, many backed off because his freshman and sophomore year grades were terrible.
“I was recruited by a lot of schools. They were recruiting me early on and people were recruiting me up until my senior year, and then they found out I wasn’t going to make it academically,” Bocot said.
Despite making honor roll those last two years, Bocot said his grade point average still wasn’t high enough to clear NCAA guidelines as a college freshman. He was admitted to SIUC for the fall 2007 semester and was allowed to join the basketball team under a NCAA rule called Proposition 48.
Proposition 48 required student-athletes to complete 16 core courses in their first year before they were eligible to play, practice or sit with the team on the bench during a game. Bocot said he passed through it easily, but had to work as a custodian at the SIU Arena because he wasn’t on scholarship.
“Everybody’s first year is probably hard, especially when I had been playing basketball for all my life and then coming and not being able to play. It was hard coming to the games, watching, knowing I should be out there,” Bocot said. “I was like a regular student.”
Bocot said the year layoff made him a bit rusty, but he started the last nine games in the 2008-09 season for an injured Bryan Mullins. Bocot averaged 9.8 points in those nine games and saw his playing time and points per game rise during the next two seasons.
He said after an entire year away from playing, just getting on the floor was great, regardless of the minutes he played.
Lowery said they looked forward to having Bocot help lead the team this season, but the investigation threw a wrench into the Salukis’ plan.
But Bocot said he isn’t worried about starting; he just wants to help the team win. He said he was the same way as a little kid in Bloomington when he played several different sports with his older brother, Lee Kay.
“I like to win, I don’t like to lose. At every sport, I would see people play and want to play. But I wouldn’t just want to play, I wanted to be good at it,” Bocot said. “If I wasn’t good, I would stick with that for a while until I got decent at it.”
Even though he wasn’t big enough to compete with the older guys, Bocot said his aunt, Sylvia Kay, would take him to the Bloomington YMCA anyway because she knew how competitive he was.
“Sometimes they wouldn’t even let me play, but she would still take me,” Bocot said.
Brown-Surles said he respects all the work Bocot did from the time he was young to get to where he is now, but he still has his lighter moments.
When they couldn’t afford haircuts in the summer of 2010, Bocot decided to cut his own hair. The only problem was he left several bald spots on his head afterwards, and Brown-Surles said they let him walk around in public like that for a few days without telling him.
“He cut his own hair, I wouldn‘t let him cut mine,” Brown-Surles said. “He was so mad, but it was hilarious because that was something he’d do to me.”
Bocot said he hasn’t forgotten about that.
“Yeah, I’m going to get him back for that,” Bocot said.