We've talked about Michigan commit Austin Hatch before, but I'm still willing to serve up a quick refresher course because I'm emotionally relaxed like that.
Hatch is the former blue chip recruit who walked away from a 2003 plane crash that killed his mother, 11-year-old sister and 5-year-old brother, and then lost his father and step-mother in another plane crash eight years later. That second plane crash also left Austin with severe head trauma, a punctured lung, fractured ribs and a broken collarbone. For eight weeks he remained in a coma that doctors warned his family he may never wake up from.
Last November, Hatch was fully cleared to return and play for Los Angeles power Loyola High School, but said that he didn't want to see the court until he felt he could legitimately help his team. That moment occurred last week, and what happened the first time Hatch touched the ball in an actual game since 2011 was pretty remarkable.
Perhaps the best evidence of the power of Hatch's story is the fact that he's already achieved what might be the toughest task for any Wolverine athlete: a tribute column in The Lantern, Ohio State's student newspaper.
It's that special time of the year where New Year's resolutions are being realized, kids are praying for snow days and everyone is giving you their "the national champion will come from this group of teams" list. Never being one to break from the pack or not eat that dog food my friend was dared to try even though he was drunk and I was sober, here's my group of the eight teams I believe includes the eventual net-cutters.
No Indiana joke...yet.
1. Michigan State
Still the nation's most complete team, in my opinion, and the most likely to claim the sport's top prize in April...also in my opinion. Health is the primary concern here. Gary Harris has been injury prone since he got to East Lansing, Adreian Payne is still nursing a foot/ankle injury and Branden Dawson and Matt Costello have both missed notable time because of illness. In all, only three Spartans - Keith Appling, Denzel Valentine and Gavin Schilling - have appeared in every game this season.
The Wildcats have about as many doubters as possible for a 17-0 team playing in a power conference, and that's not likely to change any time between now and the start of the big dance. Sean Miller's team is worthy of its ranking, and it also has the chance to benefit greatly from the selection committee's new seeding process so long as it takes care of business in the Pac-12.
Starting two years ago, the committee did away with the "s-curve" process that placed the No. 1 overall seed in the same region as the worst No. 2 seed, the best No. 3 seed, the worst No. 4 seed, and so on and so on. Instead, the committee now attempts to protect the top four seeds in each region by keeping them close to home whenever possible. With the West Coast again being poorly represented in the nation's top 20, it stands to reason that if 'Zona winds up as a No. 1 seed, it could find itself in a region with the weakest two and three seeds. It would be the same situation that Gonzaga found itself in, but couldn't take advantage of, a year ago.
I know we've been talking about the freshmen most likely to go in the top five of the NBA Draft, but Tyler Ennis is so good, you guys. Like, so good.
Yeah, it's fun to laugh at them being 12-4 after all the 40-0 stuff, but no one is going to want this team on a neutral court in two months. I think Julius Randle is the best post player in the country, and if the Harrison twins can mature even more than they already have and become the consistent stars we thought they'd be by now, the Wildcats can absolutely finish the season in the same place where they started it
The Gators would be one of the weirdest national champions ever in that they've already been about 15 different teams this season. They'll be at least one more if Chris Walker ever gets cleared, but even without Walker, all the pieces are there for yet another deep run in March.
6. Wichita State
I offer this statement with complete confidence in its validity: This Wichita State team is superior to the Gonzaga squad that finished last season ranked No. 1 and earned a top seed in the tournament. Cleanthony Early has been as good as we thought he'd be before the season, but it's actually sophomore point guard Fred VanVleet who's trending towards MVC Player of the Year honors at the moment. VanVleet is that type of "can hang with anyone" guard that the Zags simply didn't have last year. The fact that the Shockers were the ones who beat that Bulldog team on their way to the Final Four also helps the argument.
There's at least a chance that the first two players chosen in this summer's NBA Draft will both be Jayhawks, so you kind of have to say they've got a shot at winning their last six games.
The defending national champions aren't getting nearly enough from their Chane Behanan-less frontcourt right now, but the three-headed monster of Russ Smith, Montrezl Harrell and Luke Hancock is still good enough to beat the vast majority of teams. The Cardinals have a history of January struggles under Rick Pitino, perhaps most notably losing three straight a season ago before gearing up for their title run. Louisville will be a completely different squad come late February, and it will take a terrific 40-minute effort from someone to keep them from defending their title.
The NCAA Tournament has a funny, but effective, way of wiping out about five months worth of conference superiority arguments in the span of three weeks. For the time being, though, I think it's safe to deem the Atlantic Coast Conference as a massive disappointment. Part of that is because of the silly "best league ever" talk during the offseason, but another part is the struggles of the league's most recognizable names.
For the first time ever, Duke, North Carolina and North Carolina State all lost their first ACC game. The Blue Devils and Tar Heels followed that up by getting off to a combined 1-5 start for the first time ever, and then the trio all lost on the same day (Jan. 11) for the first time since 1996. Wake Forest is also less-than-stellar again, but we'll leave them alone because they have to deal with Jeff Bzdelik for another 15 or 16 years.
Duke, which recently fell out of the AP top 10 for the first time since 2007, is now barely hanging in the top 25 at No. 23, and is one of just three ACC teams currently ranked (Big East transplants Syracuse and Pittsburgh are the others). While the conference is still well-positioned to be college basketball's toughest over the next decade or so, it's at best a distant third behind the Big 10 and Big 12 right now.
When Mississippi State knocks off Ole Miss, Rick Ray WILL dance about it in the locker room.
And fans WILL post "Wop" remixes on Vine.
Your weekly Incarnate Word watch is highlighted by the mighty Cardinals getting their first Southland Conference (and Division-I) victory, a 78-55 triumph over New Orleans. I-Dub is now 13-2 overall, with 12 of those wins coming against teams not playing in the level of basketball the Cardinals currently compete in. They'll host Central Arkansas on Thursday and Oral Roberts on Saturday.
USC's Nikola Javonovic appears to have found a loophole in the NCAA's redshirt policy.
This dude must be a senior. pic.twitter.com/eR5GVAgcYs— Jay Bilas (@JayBilas) January 5, 2014
Of course Bilas' joke was better than mine.
National scoring race update:
1. Antoine Mason, Niagara (28.3 ppg)
2. Doug McDermott, Creighton (25.0 ppg)
3. Alan Williams, UC Santa Barbara (24.3 ppg)
4. Aaric Murray, Texas Southern (23.4 ppg)
5. Tyler Haws, BYU (23.1 ppg)
One of the better redemption stories of the season is taking place at Georgia State, where Ryan Harrow - the point guard who took the brunt of the blame for Kentucky's trip to the NIT a year ago - is averaging a team-best 18.6 ppg and 4.6 apg for the Panthers, who are the only unbeaten team remaining in the Sun Belt. The junior dropped 33 in a December win over Old Dominion, and 34 in a November loss at Elon.
After transferring in from NC State, Harrow was, perhaps unfairly, hyped as the next great John Calipari point guard. Instead, he struggled with the constant pressure that comes with playing for Big Blue Nation and was labeled - sometimes indirectly, sometimes not so indirectly - as the driving force behind the first underachieving season of the Calipari era.
A Twitter search of Harrow's name at just about any time will reveal that some those feelings are still floating around Lexington.
A split was the best move for all parties concerned, and it's worked out particularly well for Georgia State, which is just five wins shy of matching its win total from all of 2012-13. The Panthers have already won at perennial Sun Belt powers Western Kentucky and South Alabama (although the latter is way down this year), and appear to be a legitimate title contender in their first season in the conference.
Indiana's controversial court storm-inducing win over Wisconsin Tuesday night not only revived the Hoosiers' season and ended the Badgers' pursuit of perfection, but it kept Bucky from becoming the first program ever to win 13 straight games over IU.
Grab the ladders and get those damn nets down, Tom.
I hinted at this earlier. You should have been aware that it was coming. Tom Crean once instructed his players to cut down nets at a time when it was not at all appropriate, and that fact deserves to be mocked 10 months later.
Speaking of that controversial court storm, this is a top-notch effort from the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
Congratulations on being correct, Bluegrass State.
The biggest of big shoutouts to our friends at DePaul, who just won back-to-back conference games for the first time in six years. The Blue Demons consolidated a double overtime win over Butler last Thursday with a gritty 77-75 win over St. John's on Tuesday.
DePaul has finished last or tied for last and been the bottom seed in the Big East Tournament in each of the past five season. But now, more than a quarter of the way through their first go-round in the NEW Big East, the Blue Demons find themselves smack in the middle of the league standings.
You have to think the "Did DePaul Win" tracker has been a major factor here.
Your SB Nation Midseason All-Americans:
Doug McDermott, Creighton
Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State
DeAndre Kane, Iowa State
C.J. Fair, Syracuse
Jabari Parker, Duke
Julius Randle, Kentucky
Shabazz Napier, Connecticut
Keith Appling, Michigan State
Kyle Anderson, UCLA
Nick Johnson, Arizona
Tyler Ennis, Syracuse
Russ Smith, Louisville
Casey Prather, Florida
Andrew Wiggins, Kansas
Fred VanVleet, Wichita State
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: McDermott
Here's a pretty great in-house look at probably the most memorable play of the season so far: Michael Qualls' put-back, buzzer-beating dunk to lift Arkansas past Kentucky in overtime.
I'm also a big fan of this Lil' Flip remix.
College basketball is just the best, you guys.
At halftime of the Jan. 8 game between New Mexico and Wyoming in Laramie, someone on the Lobo's bench noticed a Wyoming employee adjusting the height of the rim on the basket UNM would be shooting at for the rest of the game. The New Mexico staff subsequently asked for an official measurement of the rim, which was discovered to be too high.
Here's where things get even more wacky. Both sides agree that the rim had to be lowered, but while the UNM sports information director tweeted that it measured 3 inches too high, the Wyoming sports information director countered that it was only 1 inch too high.
Despite the ongoing dispute regarding the real details of Rimgate 2014 (do not Google image search it), New Mexico wound up winning the game, 72-69 in overtime.
College basketball's unofficial bad boy, Marshall Henderson, missed Ole Miss' first two games of conference play while serving a suspension issued for the way he behaved during last season's SEC and NCAA Tournaments (getting caught with marijuana and cocaine in his car during the offseason may have also contributed). In his return to league play on Wednesday night, Henderson torched LSU to the tune of 25 points and seven assists, leading the Rebels to an enormous overtime victory.
After the game, Marshall had a message for the rest of the college hoops world.
"I was sitting there and thinking about it, watching those games," Henderson told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger about how he spent his suspension time. "I was like, ‘I can't do this anymore. I can't be calm.' It's hurting me, which is weird. I can't do it anymore. I'm sorry. I'm going back to being me, because we need it."
So we've all got that going for us, which is nice.
The biggest crime in all of this is that one of the two games Henderson was suspended for was Ole Miss' trip to Auburn. I think everyone wanted to know if the man in the burnt orange fleece was going to be sitting courtside again.
We're a couple of weeks into conference play, and just three leagues can (accurately) claim that each one of their members owns a winning record: the Big East, the Big 12 and the WCC. The Pac-12 could boast that all of its members were at least .500 or better before Washington State fell to 8-9 with an embarrassing 80-48 loss to Stanford Wednesday night.
Our nickname of the week goes to South Florida freshman Chris Perry, who is better known around Tampa as "Skippy Walnuts." He recently explained why to the USF student newspaper.
"Skippy Walnuts" wasn't a nickname given to him by a relative, guardian, or friend. It's a name he adopted in honor of a friend he built a bond with through video games.
"I played PS3 online all the time," he said. "I had a friend about five years ago named ‘Skippy Walnuts' when I was playing Call of Duty, back when I had no life. I played with him every day. Then about two years ago, he stopped getting online to play and I never talked to him again. He was one of my best friends. It's kind of like an ‘RIP' thing because I don't know where he is now. But that was his PS3 ID, and I took it because he was real cool."
I love every word I just read.
Skippy Walnuts has scored exactly 10 points in each of South Florida's last three games - a win over Temple and losses to SMU and Houston. He's averaging 9.6 points and 5.8 rebounds for the fairly disappointing Bulls.
Towson is looking like it might be the class of a pretty bad Colonial Athletic Association, and All-American candidate Jerrelle Bennimon is the biggest reason why. The senior forward is averaging a double-double (18.4/11.2) and posted an absurd 27-point, 13-assist, 7-rebound stat line in the Tigers' 80-68 win over Drexel on Tuesday.
If Towson winds up making the NCAA Tournament just two years after posting a 1-31 record and setting the Division-I record for consecutive losses, it'll be one of the better stories of March. It will also be the product of a depressingly diminished conference.
No hoops league has been more victimized by the latest cycle of conference realignment than the CAA. It seems like last week it was the toast of mid-major basketball and home to Final Four crashers VCU and George Mason. Now it's in a place where four of the league's nine teams - Hofstra, Northeastern, James Madison and UNC Wilmington - have six wins or fewer more than two months into the season.
Best radio call utilizing "holy guacamole" this season? Going to have to go with Mark Beier and Jay Gast's call of the Juice Brown buzzer-beater that lifted Toldeo past Buffalo.
Here's the shot:
And here's the call:
The Rockets are now 14-2 and one of six 2-1 squads in a Mid-American Conference that only has 12 teams. Akron is the league's lone 3-0 squad.
No team has had a worse week than Colorado, which lost star Spencer Dinwiddie for the season to a torn ACL and then Tre'Shaun Fletcher for 6-8 weeks with his own knee injury. The Buffs own solid resume wins over Kansas, Oregon and Harvard, but the selection committee is going to be aware of the fact that the team that won those games is not the same one they'll be examining in early March.
The Pac-12 is navigable enough for Tad Boyle's team to have a shot at making the NCAA Tournament, but the reality is they're no longer a threat to do any major damage if they make it that far. For a program that hasn't won more than a game in the big dance since 1955, that's a pretty bitter pill to swallow right now.
And finally, we end this First 68 as we end all First 68s...with your creepy mascot photo of the week.
Yeah, this might be the best one yet.
That's one of the "Zooperstars" doing its thing during halftime of the Michigan/Holy Cross game, but what really drives home the creepiness here is the photo caption from the Associated Press.
A mascot chases a youngster after swallowing him, spitting out his shoes and pants then him, during a game between the Holy Cross Crusaders and the Michigan Wolverines at Crisler Center...
Imagine reading that description and then showing the picture to someone who has no concept of what a mascot is. Maybe someone from the 18th century. They would be horrified.
WHY ARE PEOPLE LAUGHING!? GOOD LORD ARE THOSE CHEERLEADERS CLAPPING?!
The person isn't familiar with the concept of cheerleaders in this scenario either, but they did use context clues to ascertain that the ladies wearing matching yellow tops belonged to a specialized group. Then they just got lucky with a made-up word. It happens.