Gregg Marshall and his Merry Band of Misfits

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ATLANTA — Sitting on a chair in his locker in the far corner of Wichita State’s locker room, Ron Baker must have been thankful that he wasn’t claustrophobic. He was surrounded by reporters — print, TV, internet — from across the country, blockaded by a swarm of video cameras, bright lights, recorders and iPhones that were shoved in his face for 25 minutes. Baker was peppered with questions, the topics ranging everywhere from playing against Russ Smith to his hometown in Kansas to … what the Easter holiday means for someone of Catholic faith.

Seriously.

He was asked what Easter means to him.

At the Final Four.

And Baker handled it all like a pro, calmly, intelligently and succinctly answering every question he was asked, mixing in enough small-town, Midwestern charm to win over reporters and blind them to the fact that the majority of what he said was typical press conference generality. If you didn’t know any better, you never would have guessed that Baker was a redshirt freshmen at a school that didn’t win a league title in the Missouri Valley who opted to walk-on for a year instead of go to Junior College or accept a Division II scholarship.

“My AAU coach was at Coffeyville [CC in Kansas] at the time, and that was my second option if Wichita State didn’t give me the opportunity to pay my first year,” Baker said.

“It’s definitely overwhelming. If I looked back two years ago and you told me I’d be sitting here, I’d probably call you crazy. It’s been a good trip for me and my family and everybody back home. They’re extremely excited.”

And why shouldn’t they be? Towns like Scott City, KS, population 3,800, don’t often send players to the Final Four. But it’s those small-town roots that make Baker’s path to this stage all the more impressive. His high school graduating class was 55 kids. Scott City has two stop lights. The reason he wasn’t recruited by bigger schools? They didn’t know about him. So imagine where he would be if his family had never moved to Scott City from Utica, KS.

“It’s about 50 miles northeast of Scott City,” Baker said. “Population about 280 people.”

The best part about this Wichita State team is that Baker may not even have the best story.

Carl Hall, their 24 year old starting power forward, suffers from a heart condition known as neurocardiogenic syncope. He’s passed out three times on the court, and that forced him away from the game. Instead of chasing his dream, Hall was working the graveyard shift, 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., at a lighting company. He painted light-bulbs for 12 bucks-an-hour before going to school during the day and, finally, taking a nap at night before heading back to the factory.

“I wouldn’t recommend that job to anybody,” Hall said. “It was just a hot, nasty job. I tell them every day to stay in school and do they work.”

That lasted for two years. Finally, doctors told Hall that his medication had started to work and he would be able to resume playing the game he loved. He wound up at Wichita State after going to a JuCo, but it was still difficult for him to resume. On the one hand, he had to learn to trust his heart again. “Once you pass out you,” Hall told reporters in LA, “you don’t want to go through that situation again.” That made it difficult for him to get in shape, and Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall found it difficult to push Hall.

That’s understandable. He once watched a kid he was recruiting die on the court during a game due to a heart condition. When you see that happen once, it makes it a lot harder to convince yourself it’s worthwhile to push a kid beyond his limit.

But Hall persevered, averaging 22.3 minutes as a sixth-man as a junior and more than 28 minutes per game asa  senior.

“I remember like yesterday telling one of the workers that I wanted to start playing basketball, try to pursue my dream, try to play in March Madness one day,” Hall said.

Hall’s here, and if that wasn’t enough, he’ll be playing a car ride from his hometown of Cochran, GA. “I grew up an hour and a half from here,” he said, “and I’ve never been to the Dome.”

It’s the stories of guys like Hall and Baker that make the Shockers so likeable. Wichita State — a No. 9 seed, a team that couldn’t win a title this season in the Missouri Valley, a team with losses to Indiana State and Southern Illinois and got swept by Evansville — wasn’t supposed to beat Gonzaga and Ohio State and make it to Atlanta. Ron Baker and Carl Hall aren’t supposed to be recognizable names. They’re not supposed to be giving interview after interview to the biggest media outlets in the country.

And those two are not alone.

Malcolm Armstead has played at three different colleges during his career. After leaving Oregon as a junior, he redshirted and worked at a car dealership part-time to pay his tuition. “Sometimes I had to leave practice to go to work to be able to make money,” Armstead said. Cleanthony Early played at Division III Sullivan Community College before heading to Wichita. Ehimen Orukpe is from Lagos, Nigeria, by way of Three Rivers Community College. Kadeem Coleby is a transfer from Louisiana-Lafayette that is from the Bahamas. Chadrack Lufile and Nick Wiggins are from Canada, and Wiggins making the Final Four isn’t even the biggest story in his family. He’s the older brother of the nation’s No. 1 prospect, Andrew Wiggins.

The Shockers embody the underdog story, Marshall’s Merry Band of Misfits. And somehow, despite having a locker room full of pieces that didn’t fit somewhere else, the Shockers have made it work.

“A lot of people probably think I wouldn’t fit in with these guys,” Baker said with a laugh. “There’s a bunch of crazy men on this team.”

The craziest part is that they are now someplace no one ever thought they would be: 24 hours away from playing in the Final Four.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

Oklahoma sophomore Doolittle to miss first semester

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Oklahoma’s non-conference schedule just got a little more challenging.

Sooner sophomore Kristian Doolittle has been suspended for the first semester of this upcoming season due to academic reasons, the school announced Wednesday.

“I didn’t meet the academic standards and I apologize to my teammates, coaches, fans and the university,” Doolittle said in a statement released by the school. “I take full responsibility for my actions and will use this time away from the team to learn from my mistakes. I am committed to bettering myself throughout this process and look forward to earning a chance to compete with my teammates after the fall semester.”

The 6-foot-7 forward should be back in time for Oklahoma’s most important part of the season – Big 12 play – but the Sooners have a rather challenging non-conference slate for which he’ll be sidelined. Oklahoma is in the loaded field of the PK80 tournament in Oregon with Arkansas its first-round opponent and then North Carolina potentially waiting in the second round. The Sooners also play USC in Los Angeles and at Wichita State before welcoming Northwestern into Norman.

“We’re disappointed for Kristian,” OU coach Lon Kruger said in a statement. “He made some poor decisions that resulted in his suspension from the university. We will provide support and encouragement as he works to earn the opportunity to rejoin the team at the conclusion of the fall semester.”

Doolittle averaged 9.1 points and 6.2 rebounds per game last season, starting 25 games in Oklahoma’s 20-13 campaign.

SMU hires father of five-star recruit

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SMU just seemingly positioned itself to land one of the top recruits of the Class of 2019.

The Mustangs have hired Tyrone Maxey, the father of top-25 2019 forward Tyrese Maxey, as their new director of scouting, according to Scout.com.

It’s a move that’s sure to raise eyebrows given that Maxey is the father of a five-star recruit that SMU would likely otherwise not be in play for on the recruiting trail, but the elder Maxey does have nearly 20 years experience coaching at the high school level and played at Washington State in the 1990s, so it’s not as though his resume is completely barren. Also, and this probably should be taken with some skepticism, Maxey said his employment wouldn’t change his son’s recruitment.

“It doesn’t affect him at all,” Maxey told Rivals. “I tell people this is an opportunity for me. This is not going to affect him one way or another. In my household, we support him and this is all about him in this recruiting process. Wherever he wants to go, that is what we support wholeheartedly. It is not one of those kind of deals.”

Even if you take that statement at its word, it’s hard to believe that employing a high-level recruit’s father isn’t going to bolster a program’s chances to land a game-changing recruit. There doesn’t even have to be a wink-wink, handshake deal. The implicit pressure of making a decision that can alter the course of your father’s career and employment is probably plenty significant for a teenager.

And it’s certainly not a move without precedent. Michael Porter, Sr. has gotten hired twice, first at Washington and then at Missouri, largely on the strength of having a potential No. 1 draft pick as a son. And would Keelon Lawson have been brought on to Josh Pastner’s staff at Memphis if his sons weren’t all high level recruits? There’s a long history of this practice in college hoops.

The NCAA did try to curb this move not too long ago by forcing programs to hire those close to prospects to coveted full-time coaching positions, as if they’re hired to support staff jobs – such as Maxey’s director of recruiting position – there’s a two-year moratorium on bringing on the related recruit. Given that Tyrese Maxey, who has offers from the likes of Michigan State, UCLA and Oregon, is still two years away from joining a college program, the Mustangs probably wouldn’t have an issue there.

That is, should the Garland, Texas native choose to follow his father a few miles down the road to Dallas.

“I love my son,” Tyrone Maxey told Rivals, “and am going to support him wherever he wants to go and that it what it is. He has worked hard and whatever he deserves and wherever he wants to go with the recruiting process is on him.”

Report: Elite prospect Mitchell Robinson not expected to play in college in 2018

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It now appears as if college is off the table for Mitchell Robinson, a top ten recruit in the Class of 2017 and a potential lottery pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, as Yahoo! Sports is reporting that he has passed on the idea of playing for his hometown university, New Orleans.

Robinson was initially a Western Kentucky-signee, and he spent two weeks over the summer practicing and attending classes as a Hilltopper. But he left school earlier this summer, which puts him in a bind: He’s a one-and-done player, but if he spends that year in college, he’ll do so as a transfer that must sit-out as a redshirt.

There were three schools that Robinson was eventually considering: LSU, Kansas and UNO. LSU stopped recruiting him two weeks ago. Bill Self told reporters last week that Kansas would not be adding anymore players this season. And now, according to Yahoo!, he will not be attending UNO.

As we wrote on Monday, the options for Robinson are now simple: He can either sit out for a year, working out on his own to train for the 2018 NBA Draft, or he can head overseas, where there is a market for his services; Australia, where Terrence Ferguson played last season before getting selected in the first round of the 2017 NBA Draft, has been a place where Robinson has been linked.

Ball State forward Zach Hollywood found dead in off-campus apartment

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Zach Hollywood, a redshirt freshman on the Ball State basketball team, has died, the university confirmed to multiple local news outlets Tuesday.

Muncie police are investigating the death at Hollywood’s off-campus apartment, according to WTHR-TV. Multiple outlets are reporting that the death has been ruled a suicide.

Hollywood was 19 years old.

This is his final tweet, from 5:39 a.m. Tuesday morning:

Hollywood redshirted last season at Ball State after averaging 17.5 points and 7.8 rebounds per game as a senior at Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School in Bradley, Ill.

“On behalf of Ball State University, it is with profound sadness that we learned today of the passing of Zachary “Zach” Hollywood, a student from Bradley, Illinois,” the school said in a statement. “Zach has been a part of our family for the past year. During his time on campus, he was a member of men’s basketball team and made many positive impressions throughout campus.”

“This is a tragedy. Our heartfelt condolences are with his family, friends and teammates.”

Hollywood’s teammates reacted on social media:

Hollywood’s death is a tragic turn in an already devastating story for his family, which lost Zach’s mother, Susan, suddenly just over one year ago.

3-on-3 at the Final Four for $100,000? It’s happening

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The Final Four just got more exciting.

On Tuesday, Intersport announced a 3-on-3 tournament that they will be hosting at the Final Four with a $100,000 payout for the winners. The participants must be seniors that have exhausted their collegiate eligibility, the teams will be created based on conference and the rules will be standard, international 3-on-3 rules: one-point for a bucket inside the arc, two points for a bucket outside the arc, 12-second shot clocks and games played to 21 points, or whoever has the highest score after 10 minutes. Each all-star team will feature four players, including one sub.

And, well, this is awesome.

I cannot express enough how much I love this idea.

One potential pothole here is that teams that are playing in the Final Four will, quite clearly, not have players eligible to participate.

It also should be noted that since “three-pointers” are now worth two points and “two-pointers” are now worth one, the value of long-range shooting is increased even more.

With all that in mind, why don’t we make a quick power ranking of the teams that can be created from the nine biggest conferences in college hoops:

  1. ACC: Grayson Allen (Duke), Bonzie Colson (Notre Dame), Joel Berry II (North Carolina), Ben Lammers (Georgia Tech)
  2. Big East: Angel Delgado and Khadeen Carrington (Seton Hall), Trevon Bluiett (Xavier), Marcus Foster (Creighton)
  3. Big 12: Devonte’ Graham (Kansas), Jevon Carter (West Virginia), Jeffery Carroll (Oklahoma State), Zach Smith (Texas Tech)
  4. AAC: Rob Gray (Houston), B.J. Taylor (UCF), Gary Clark (Cincinnati), Obi Enechionya (Temple)
  5. Pac-12: Jordan McLaughlin and Elijah Stewart (USC), George King (Colorado), Thomas Welsh (UCLA)
  6. Big Ten: Nate Mason (Minnesota), Scottie Lindsay (Northwestern), Vince Edwards and Isaac Haas (Purdue)
  7. Atlantic 10: E.C. Matthews and Jared Terrell (Rhode Island), Peyton Aldridge (Davidson), Jaylen Adams (St. Bonaventure)
  8. SEC: Yante Maten (Georgia), Deandre Burnett (Ole Miss), Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford (Arkansas)
  9. WCC: Jock Landale and Emmett Naar (Saint Mary’s), Jonathan Williams III (Gonzaga), Silas Melson (Gonzaga)

I had way too much fun putting this together.

What did I miss?