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December 14, 2006

Hackett grows up quickly for Trojans

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USC freshman Daniel Hackett spent Wednesday night at a local high school game. Dozens of other college players probably did the same, but this was different - a lot different.

Hackett was supposed to be playing in the game. He graduated from Saint John Bosco High in Bellflower, Calif., a full year early and enrolled at Southern Cal just before the end of fall registration.

Kansas State's prize recruit Bill Walker has received a great deal of publicity for making a similar move, but he wasn't admitted into school until late October and won't play in his first game until Sunday against Kennesaw State.

Hackett is already well into making the rare transition. The 6-foot-5, 205-pound guard started in the Trojans' season opener and hasn't left the starting lineup in the seven games since.

If Hackett hadn't blurted out what was on his mind during an informal meeting at the coaching offices in the spring, he probably would have been playing in that high school game instead of cheering on his former teammates from the stands.

USC coach Tim Floyd and his assistants were discussing how they would find their next point guard at the time. The mood was somber.

They were still grieving the death of Ryan Francis, last season's starter, who was shot to death in his hometown of Baton Rouge, La., in May. The Trojans had also learned that leading returning scorer Gabe Pruitt would be academically ineligible for the fall.

"I said, 'It would be nice if I could come out and help you guys this year,' " Hackett told Rivals.com. "It ended up coming out as a joke. I don't think Coach Floyd took me seriously."

The coaches chuckled a bit and nodded in agreement. Soon, the subject passed.

But, not for Hackett. He knew perhaps more than anyone how much the team needed him.

Hackett spent the first 15 years of his life in Italy where his father, Rudy, played professionally. The family moved to Los Angeles and Rudy took a job as an assistant coach at Saint John Bosco. A year later, Floyd hired Rudy to be his strength and conditioning coach.

The Trojans became Daniel's second family. He played pick-up games with the players and hung out with them off the court. That included Francis, who took him around the campus during his three unofficial visits to the Pac-10 school.

The morning of Francis' death, one of the team's walk-ons called Daniel to break the news. Daniel committed to the Trojans before his junior season even began, before Francis had played his first college game.

But was it possible for Hackett to skip his senior year? What would he have to do to make it happen?

Hackett talked to one of the assistants and found it could be done. Once he got the blessing of Floyd, who had to be convinced Hackett was making the decision on his own, a plan was put in place.

"Obviously Ryan's passing was one of the main reasons for my decision," Hackett said. "The team didn't have anyone that could handle the point guard spot and was looking for somebody. I knew I could step up and play that role, so I did."

Making the choice might have been the easy part. Hackett had to take four classes - English, U.S. Government, Math and an elective - from mid-June to mid-August. A year's worth of school work was crammed into two months.

"Basketball and studying, that's how I spent my summer," Hackett said. "It was no fun, but I took it as a challenge to do something nobody else had ever done in college basketball."

So far, Hackett is very pleased with his choice. But, he's not as happy as the 6-2 Trojans.

Hackett has given them the solid ballhandler they sorely lacked. He is also a pass-first presence on the perimeter for a team full of scoring threats.

It has been far from a smooth switch. Hackett is averaging 3.3 turnovers a game. But the versatile rookie is also averaging a team-high 3.1 assists per game. He played his best game on Saturday with an 18-point performance (went 11-of-11 from free-throw line) in a 74-65 win over George Washington.

"It's been a great experience, I feel really blessed," Hackett said. "I'm trying to improve my game and help us stay together and win as many games as possible."

If Hackett does happen to start longing for his high school days again, he can just look behind the USC bench. Many of the former teammates who he still goes to see play are happy to return the favor.

Hold Judgment on Ailing Alabama

Don't start worrying about Alabama just yet. Sure, the Tide (8-1) looked nothing like the No. 5 team in the nation in their 99-85 loss at Notre Dame last week.

But the Tide hasn't looked much like itself since the start of the season. Preseason All-American point guard Ronald Steele and Jermareo Davidson - one of the SEC's top big men - have combined to miss five games and more than 25 practices.

Steele has been dealing with tendinitis in his knee and recently sprained an ankle. His status for Alabama's next game against Southern Miss (7-0) on Saturday in Mobile, Ala., remains uncertain according to coach Mark Gottfried.

Davidson's problems are much more serious. He's dealing with the death of his girlfriend, who was killed in an auto accident last month. She was driving the car and Davidson was a passenger.

Davidson, who is shooting a career-low 39 percent from the field, dropped out of fall classes earlier this week. But, he re-enrolled for the spring and was recently cleared to play by the NCAA.

"These guys haven't had much time to practice together and it's been frustrating," Gottfried said. "There's not much you can do about it."

The good news for the Tide is that their younger players are excelling. Athletic sophomore wing Alonzo Gee, who is averaging a team-high 16 points, is on his way to a breakout season. Junior college transfer Mykal Riley has given them a much-needed 3-point threat. Sophomore Richard Hendrix dominated down low in a rout over Alabama State on Saturday, scoring a career-high 34 points.

Wondering how the non=conference schedule is going to go for your team? Want to know why your favorite player isn't higher in our power rankings?

Rivals.com college basketball writer Andrew Skwara answers your questions every week in his Tuesday Mailbag. Click here to send him a question.
If Steele can get healthy and Davidson returns to last season's form they'll be surrounded by a much more dangerous set of weapons, a scary realization for the rest of the SEC.

"I don't think we've come near to playing as well as we can," Gottfried said. "We've got to play better. We've got to defend better. We've got to shoot our free throws better. But I think we can."

Quick Hits

Kansas State's highly touted freshman Bill Walker will make his college debut without ever having practiced with the team. Walker can start getting involved in team activities around 2:30 p.m. on Sunday according to coach Bob Huggins and the Wildcats face Kennesaw Sate that night at 7 p.m. Huggins said Walker will play at shooting guard and small forward. "I think he's going to have a big impact," Huggins said. "We're not very athletic, and he brings a degree of athleticism that we really need. He can go get it in a crowd, make athletic plays defensively and offensively. We don't have anybody who can do that right now."

Florida small forward Corey Brewer returned to practice this week with the Gators (8-2) after developing mononucleosis. He's expected to play against visiting No. 4 Ohio State (8-1) on Dec. 23.

Still wondering why nobody from a major conference will travel to a Missouri Valley Conference school? The 10-team league has combined to go 44-1 at home this season and is the second-best conference behind the ACC according to the RPI.

Andrew Skwara is the national college basketball writer for Rivals.com. He files his national notebook every Thursday and answers your questions every Friday in his Mailbag feature. Click here to send him a question.



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