LOS ANGELES — Carl Hall positions himself down on the block, spins to catch a pass and scores off a lay-in. That sequence ran on a loop in the opening minutes of Wichita State’s regional semifinal against La Salle.
He scored 10 of the Shockers’ first 14 points, setting a dominant tone that carried them to a 72-58 victory and within a game of reaching the school’s first Final Four since 1965.
Hall’s emergence in just two seasons at Wichita State, which plays Ohio State tonight, couldn’t have been more unlikely.
The 6-foot-8 forward from Cochran, Ga., arrived in Kansas via two previous schools and a graveyard shift job in a light bulb factory. A heart condition nearly derailed his basketball career and his reluctance to wear glasses to correct his poor eyesight held him back on the court.
Hall’s transformation includes chopping off the dreadlocks he’d worn for five years just before the NCAA Tournament began. The decision didn’t come without hesitation.
“I sat in the car for an hour, like, ‘What am I doing?’” he said Friday.
Hall hasn’t lost any of his dominance. He’s averaging 11.7 points while shooting a team-high 56 percent and 5.0 rebounds.
Coach Gregg Marshall recruited Hall out of Northwest Florida State. He first spotted the forward at a national junior college tournament, telling his assistants, “’I want that guy right there. The guy with the hair.’”
Hall’s dreadlocks violated Marshall’s rule about his players being neatly groomed, but the coach made a fateful exception.
“I wouldn’t have went to Wichita,” Hall said.
Hall’s heart started giving him trouble in high school. He was playing basketball the first time he passed out; doctors told him it was dehydration.
That summer, he passed out again playing pickup ball in a hot gym. He fainted again in the fall while playing at Middle Georgia College.
Hall was diagnosed with neurocardiogenic syncope, a condition that can make the heart race. He spits out the medical term with ease, but back then Hall was devastated. His doctor told him he had to quit playing basketball.
In 2009, the medication Hall was taking improved his condition. He was told he could resume basketball. But he was hesitant, unsure whether he’d pass out again.
“It was scary,” he recalled.
Hall had seen a 1992 TV movie about Loyola Marymount star Hank Gathers, who collapsed during a game and later died. It reminded him of his own problem.
“It kind of shook me up,” he said.
Eventually, Hall returned to the court at Northwest Florida State without problems. He signed with Wichita State, and it’s been 2 ½ years since he last fainted. He no longer takes the medication.
“The doctor told me it was probably something I’d grow out of,” he said. “I just pray every time before I touch the court.”
Hall developed another issue at Wichita State. His eyesight was poor, and he didn’t like putting his finger in his eyes to insert contact lenses. He resisted glasses, too.
Teammate Cleanthony Early recalled how Hall would tell him to take the wheel if they were going somewhere in the car. Hall’s vision limited him on the court, too.
“I squinted a lot,” Hall said. “A lot of the fans are like, ‘You look so mean.’ I’m like, ‘I can’t see.’”
Eventually, Marshall insisted he wear glasses. After fits and starts adjusting to them, Hall wears a throwback prescription pair in games, with the long black strap that secures them hanging down the back of his jersey.
“He’s hitting jump shots,” Early said, noting the difference Hall’s glasses have made.
During his short time in Wichita, Hall has made an impact.
He was the Missouri Valley newcomer of the year in his first season, and he won the team’s most inspirational player award. That he even got to play Division I basketball was the result of being granted an eligibility waiver by the NCAA. He turned 24 on Friday.
The Shockers will need another solid inside game from Hall against No. 2 seed Ohio State in Saturday’s regional final, their first appearance since 1981. A victory would earn Hall a trip home to Georgia to play in the Final Four in Atlanta.
“I’m expecting a physical game,” he said. “It’s going to be an all-out war. They want to win and we want to win. We’re not satisfied.”