Updated Thu, Feb 21, 2013 7:26 pm
Ohio forward T.J. Hall saw the day coming. His doctor had warned him during his senior year of high school that his torn right meniscus would eventually require surgery, preventing him from playing basketball for an extended period of time.
A few short years later, Hall had a choice to make: continue playing and risking further injury or go under the knife for corrective surgery. He didn’t want the surgery to come the summer before one of the most highly anticipated seasons in Ohio basketball history. In the end, it wasn’t even a choice, as the surgery became mandatory.
The cartilage in his right knee had worn down so much that the 6-foot-5 forward required a cartilage transplant. The junior had major knee surgery over the offseason and was out five to six months, without any ability to run or practice with the team.
While his team ran drills in practice and prepared for the season, he rode a stationary bicycle off to the side. The only moments he could touch a basketball were before and after practice and whenever he could get into a gym. Frustration sank in for Hall.
Ohio head coach Jim Christian often debated whether he should rest Hall for the season and give him a medical redshirt. Even after the first game against Portland where Hall played 18 minutes, Christian had thought if he made a mistake by not redshirting the junior.
“There was times that I was really sad I didn't (redshirt him),” Christian said. “You know, because I just watched him struggle out there.”
The battle to come back from a knee surgery was extensive, especially for a player like Hall who worked to not only build his knee to full strength, but also improve his jumper at the same time.
Regardless, Hall fought through the pain.
It was a battle of ups and downs at the beginning of the year, as there were moments where Hall would land on his knee awkwardly and the Bobcats wouldn’t see him the rest of the game, and there were times where he was brilliant.
12 games passed until Hall saw 16 minutes on the court again. He missed the second game of the year to rest his knee and only saw double-digit minutes in six of those 12 games.
That didn’t stop Hall from contributing, though. Hall has scored seven-plus points on nine occasions this season, matching his total from the 2011-12 season. Ohio is 8-1 in those nine games, with their one loss coming to Akron on Feb. 2.
“(Surgeries) are hard things to come over, get in condition, and being able to play more than a couple minutes at a time. Once (Hall) figured that out, he's played better,” Christian said. “Now he's playing with more confidence, and you know, we've been a really good offensive team when he's in the game.”
There were few, if any, bright spots in Ohio’s 86-72 loss on the road to Akron, but if there were any signs of hope to come from that day, it was towards the end of the game when the ball was in Hall’s hands.
He finished 4-of-7 from the field for a season-high 12 points against the Zips. It was Ohio’s first loss in over a month, and Christian recognized an adjustment had to be made. That change came in their next game against Ball State, which marked their fourth straight road game.
T.J. Hall, the player who was questionable to even play a game this season, was named to the starting lineup. Making only his 12th start in his entire Bobcat career.
Everything didn’t go smoothly against Ball State, though. He fouled out with only nine minutes of playing time. Life can be difficult having to play as a 6-foot-5 big man. Hall was forced to guard forward Matt Kamieniecki, who is three inches taller at 6-foot-8, and picked up his fouls quickly against the Cardinals.
Recruited as a small forward, Hall has had to adjust to being a big man for the Bobcats, but he feels a little bigger than the tape measure says.
“Coach tells me every other day that I'm 6-foot-7, so I think I'm six-seven,” Hall said. “I'm six-five on paper, but I feel like I'm pretty long, so my length helps me. The guys usually like to bang down low, so I have to get lower, get leverage on them, and try my hardest to be physical and aggressive with them.”
The Bobcats are a perfect 4-0 with Hall in the starting lineup. Since assuming his new role as a starter he’s averaging a touch under 10 points with 9.8 a game, an increase from 3.9 points as a player off the bench.
Hall credits the mismatches on the offensive end for his surge since entering the starting lineup.
“Now that I'm at the four, there's more mismatches,” Hall said. “It's easier to drive on players, play two-on-one mismatches. I can pass, drive, or shoot the ball.”
Hall’s increase in production this season has been an improbable story coming off his knee surgery.
Not only is the starter averaging a career-high in points, but he’s also shooting a career-best from the field (.451) and from beyond the arc (.357), improvements from his career .342 field goal and dismal .280 three-point percentages from his first two seasons.
His return is a reminder to teammates, fans and coaches what hard work can accomplish. For Hall, a chance to play with the winningest class in Ohio history for one last season was enough motivation to come back.
“Coaches told me to just keep working, work hard. It shows how hard work can pay off at the end of the day, so just keep working hard and anything can happen,” Hall said. “With this team coming back, I thought, 'I can't let this up,' so I just wanted to be here and celebrate with these guys again.”
The road to the NCAA Tournament won’t be a simple one, as the Bobcats must go through the conference leader, Akron. Hall’s belief that there will be a celebration again shows a confidence that’s shared by every teammate.
There’s an even greater confidence in Hall’s mentality, particularly when the game is on the line. The Bobcats held a 12-point lead over Kent State in the Convocation Center when they went on a field goal drought.
Ohio went 6:08 without knocking down one field goal, and Kent State had retaken the lead, 63-62, with under four minutes to play.
Up to the final moments, it hadn’t been Hall’s best game. He had three air balls from beyond the arc in the first half. Three air balls after hitting his first three pointer of the night.
T.J. Hall was due.
Following an official TV timeout, Hall came out and knocked down a three to give the Bobcats the lead again.
Sure, the shot wasn’t the Stevie Taylor game-winner or Nick Kellogg’s seal-the-deal layup towards the end of overtime, but there’s no denying the momentum shifted following Hall’s three-point bucket.
The crowd had gone silent in Ohio’s drought. Kent State guard Kris Brewer was mocking every single person in the Convocation Center by motioning for the crowd to get louder as Kent State made their 16-3 run.
When Hall knocked down the three-point jumper, the Convocation Center had reenergized and the team built off the energy. The shot ended the field goal drought, and the Bobcats went on to defeat Kent State in overtime. Hall finished the game with nine points, his fifth straight game of eight-plus.
He didn’t have to make any gestures to the crowd to get them back into the game. He didn’t have to say anything to the other team to get inside their heads.
No, the soft-spoken junior, who features tattoos of his mom’s first name and middle name on his biceps, just let his play do the talking.
He didn’t let his offseason struggles or three air balls get in his head. He just played the way he’s been playing, with confidence.
That can only be a good thing as the Bobcats now find themselves six games away from the MAC Tournament. Barring any setbacks, Hall’s offense will be vital if the Bobcats are going to make a return to the NCAA Tournament.
“Obviously, I’m glad I didn’t (redshirt Hall) because he’s pivotal,” Christian said. “He's going to be pivotal as we head down the stretch and for the MAC tournament.”
Will Hall celebrate one last time with the group that went to the Sweet Sixteen last season? As Hall can attest several times throughout his career, with a little hard work anything is possible.