GOING DANCING: Hall’s journey leads former Cougar to the NCAA Tournament

0
283

INDIANAPOLIS — When Tate Hall called Greenfield-Central High School home, the former Cougars’ standout wouldn’t go a day at practice without glancing upwards.

Back then, the all-state guard’s vision was perpetually tunneled, much like it remains today, now five years later.

Winning was all that mattered to Hall, and as his eyes gazed above the rim while shooting free throws inside the Cougars’ gymnasium, he often pondered to himself.

What would it take to be the best? How can his Cougars put a new sectional championship banner on that wall, like the 1998 team?

Hall’s answer was always the same — just keep moving forward, don’t give up on your dreams.

While Hall couldn’t achieve that particular goal, he never stopped following his own advice once he joined the collegiate ranks in 2016-17, and his pursuit to win has him precisely where he envisioned he could be one day.

As men’s college basketball fans across the nation fill out brackets with their sights locked on live TV coverage of the NCAA Tournament today, Hall will be lacing up his sneakers inside Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse eager to bust some predictions with the Loyola-Chicago men’s basketball team.

From Hancock County to the Big Dance, Hall and the Missouri Valley Conference champion Loyola-Chicago Ramblers (24-4) will tip off against Georgia Tech (17-8) at 4 p.m.

“The maturation from where he was in high school to what he is now, it’s just all the unseen hours that it takes to be able to reach that pinnacle of your playing career to compete in the NCAA Tournament,” Former Greenfield-Central boys basketball coach Michael Lewis said. “It’s super impressive to see his commitment and dedication to his craft.”

The tracks were laid approximately 20 minutes eastbound from downtown Indianapolis in the small-town of Greenfield where Hall’s skills shined brightly, averaging 18.3 points as a senior in high school and posted a 16.3 ppg career average.

Overlooked by NCAA Division-I scouts despite standing 6-foot-6, Hall was a complete player, Lewis says. Deadly from long-range, relentless on defense and the personification of unselfishness, Hall was an honors student and a six-time varsity letterman.

The University of Indianapolis supplied Hall with an opportunity at Division-II, and he rewarded the Greyhounds by being named the Great Lakes Valley Conference Freshman of the Year in 2016-17, marking the program’s third selection in history.

For an encore, he made the All-GLVC First Team and led the Greyhounds with 14.8 points and 5.6 rebounds per game as a sophomore, but he kept looking up.

“I called my dad (Rob Hall) right after my sophomore year and told him, ‘I think it’s time to make a move and try to make the NCAA Tournament,’” Tate Hall recalled. “And, here we are today.”

Destined to be “the guy” if he stayed at UIndy, Hall believed in himself instead, and it didn’t matter what came of it.

“He took a giant leap of faith, and he just bet on himself,” Lewis said. “His ultimate goal was to get a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament. He would have had a great career (at UIndy). I know he really enjoyed his time there, and he was very successful, but Tate ultimately, just like every kid that grows up in this state, he wanted to have that chance. He did bet on himself, but it wasn’t a risky bet because of his work ethic.”

Per NCAA rules, Hall didn’t compete in 2018-19 after transferring from UIndy, but he used the downtime to assimilate and made an immediate impact for coach Porter Moser’s Ramblers in 2019-20.

He earned Third Team All-MVC honors and was selected as a MVC All-Newcomer, averaging 12.7 ppg as a full-time starter. He buried 58 of his patented 3-pointers at 42.6 percent and was ranked 12th in scoring overall within the MVC.

“Coming out of high school, I knew this was my dream,” Hall said. “It was a huge decision (leaving UIndy). I’m definitely glad I made that decision, especially to Loyola. At UIndy, I had a great experience, but I knew I wanted to do this. Be in the March madness and how fitting is it to be in Indiana, right in my backyard where I grew up.”

Oddly enough, Hall has never played a game inside historic Hinkle Fieldhouse, though he’s shot plenty of buckets within the hallowed venue.

As a kid, he attended several basketball camps run by former Butler men’s basketball coach Brad Stevens and caught a few Bulldogs’ games with his father, mother (Noelle) and his sister (Taylor).

This week, he shot around Hinkle Fieldhouse again, this time as an NCAA Tournament contender where the Ramblers aspire to establish their own legacy similar to the 2018 Final Four team that took center stage with, now, international celebrity, Sister “Jean” Dolores Schmidt BVM cheering on.

“It’s extremely surreal. I really don’t think it’s set in yet, but I know once game time comes, it’s definitely going to set in,” Hall said. “I’m just trying to enjoy the moment.”

The realization crept in after Loyola-Chicago defeated Drake, 75-65, for the MVC tournament title in St. Louis on March 7. The reality was cemented on Selection Sunday as the Ramblers bused into Indianapolis Motor Speedway and watched the bracket reveal from the race track’s famous Pagoda.

“It’s kind of funny. I’ve only been there once or twice. And, I’ve never been to the race. It’s definitely on my bucket list for sure,” Hall said. “It was a great experience. Being at the track on Selection Sunday and seeing your name pop up on the bracket. It was an amazing feeling and a great experience for sure.”

Even the unexpected setbacks and modifications haven’t derailed Hall’s outlook. A starter for the Ramblers’ first 11 games this season, he was regulated to the bench as one of the team’s top reserves.

His scoring average dropped to 7.0 ppg this year, but Hall continues to find ways to maximize his contributions, especially on the defensive end for the nation’s top-ranked scoring defense (55.8 ppg).

“Tate is just all about winning, so you knew knew his skills were going to be transferable to that next level,” Lewis said. “Tate was going to be a late bloomer, but sometimes what you don’t see in the AAU circuit is how he plays the game the right way. He knows how to make guys better. He’s a gifted passer. He’s always going to be in the right spot defensively.”

He plays with fire and desire, Lewis added, noting Hall’s instinctive nature to dive for loose balls and find ways to dictate the game’s outcome beyond the stat sheet.

Hall’s hallmark play mirrors the Ramblers, who have won 17 of their last 18 games and six straight entering the NCAA Tournament. The Ramblers are an eighth seed in the Midwest bracket and are ranked 17th in the The Associated Press Top 25 Poll.

“We’re all extremely close. I think this is the best team for me personally in terms of the team chemistry. I think we all jell and get along and are really focused on what we need to do to win games,” Hall said. “I think that’s why we’ve been successful. Everyone just knows their role and performs to their highest potential. I’m definitely excited to be a part of it and hoping we can make some noise here in March.”

On Thursday, ninth-seeded Georgia Tech, which was entering today as the underdog, suffered a blow when top-scoring threat and ACC Player of the Year Moses Wright, a 6-9 senior forward (17.4 ppg), was reported to be out for the tournament’s first two rounds.

Georgia Tech won it’s first ACC Tournament championship since 1993 and is making its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2010.

The Yellow Jackets relied on Wright heavily down the stretch. He averaged 23.5 points and nearly 10 rebounds in the team’s final six regular-season games, but seniors Jose Alvarado (15.3 ppg) and Jordan Usher (11.5 ppg) and junior Michael Devoe (15.1 ppg) will still be factors.

“Our defense is our bread and butter. We work on it every day and coach really harps on that. It’s something he’s preached day one since I’ve been here. You’re not going to play at Loyola, if you don’t play defense. That’s something I learned really early on, and I think that’s why I adjusted to the Division I game a little bit easier,” Hall said. “That’s why when you get the entire team on that same page, you get to be the No. 1 defense in the country.”

If the Ramblers prevail today, they will move on to potentially face top-seeded Illinois (23-6), which is ranked No. 2 in the AP Poll and won the Big Ten Tournament title.

“If we play Illinois, that would be a really good matchup for us in terms of the national spotlight. Two Illinois teams going at it, high-level teams. That would be really exciting, but we have to take care of Georgia Tech first and then we’ll move on from there,” Hall said.

Sister Jean, who is 101 years old, won’t be far behind Hall and the Ramblers after being unable to attend many games this season.

An iconic fan with her own bobblehead, she gives the team a calming serenity when she’s around, Hall said.

“We haven’t really seen her that much this year because she’s been on lockdown, but she’s coming to Indy. She’s amazing. She’s really a big boost to our team in terms of the words she uses and the support she brings. She’s definitely an icon around the country,” Hall said. “She’s fun to talk to. She sends us an email after every game, telling us what we did well, and she actually gives us some pointers, too.”

While most eyes will be on Sister Jean, brackets and scoreboard tickers today, Hall might be seen looking upwards, once again — towards the stands.

“Obviously, my parents and my sister are going to be there. My grandma and some of my friends from UIndy are going to be there, too. A lot of Greenfield guys have hit me up, saying they’re trying to get tickets,” Hall said.

“It’s definitely going to be exciting to have them there to experience it with me. I know I have a big support team from Greenfield and from where I’ve been. I know it’s going to be exciting for them just like me. I know we’re going to look back on this moment one day as we move forward in life and remember just how amazing it was. This doesn’t happen to everyone.”