WHEELING - The first weekend in January has developed into a very exciting one around the Merrick household.
The family of basketball junkies - led by Dr. Gregory Merrick - settles in at Wheeling Jesuit University to watch some of the best basketball talent the United States has to offer at the annual Cancer Research Classic, which was Merrick's brainchild six years ago.
The sixth annual event, which got under way Friday evening, was an extra special one, however.
Malik - a freshman at Linsly and Dr. Merrick's oldest son - saw minutes for the Cadets in their loss to Seton LaSalle.
"It was great to see my son play in the event," Dr. Merrick said. "Malik's had a tough year so far with injuries and sickness, but he's a great kid and I know his game will expand as the year goes on."
Malik played just a few minutes, but just getting onto the court at Wheeling Jesuit was a memory he won't soon forget.
"It's just amazing to play in such a great tournament that I've gotten to watch since I was a kid," Malik said. "To be able to watch the CRC evolve the way that it has is just incredible. Having such great players come through here every year is amazing."
While Dr. Merrick was obviously busy with everything that goes into running a major event, he did make sure he took time to watch Malik and the Cadets.
"I would never miss him playing," Dr. Merrick said. "I was there to see him play, but I was still running around crazy. No matter what I have to do, when my kids are playing I'll be there."
Through his dad's love and passion for hoops, Malik has followed in his footsteps ... almost.
Malik wouldn't go as far as to say he's as big a hoops junkie as his dad, but he's definitely passionate for the sport.
"I follow it, but I try to stay up on my own game rather than other people's games," Malik said.
Don't think for a minute that Malik isn't paying attention to every word his dad says when he's rattling off information, stats and numbers about CRC teams and teams from throughout the nation.
"Coming home and my dad will be like, 'I talked to so and so today and then so and so tomorrow,' is awesome," Malik said. "Hearing all of the teams that are coming each year (to the CRC) is especially exciting."
It's been a tough go for Malik at times during this young season. He's battled some injuries and was dealing with an illness on Friday night. However, he feels as if he's coming along.
"It was kind of hard at the beginning, but it's getting better," Malik said.
There will probably come a time when Merrick's other son takes part. Milo - a sixth grader in the Ohio County School system - doesn't miss a CRC game either. He was also at the tipoff banquet with his dad on Thursday.
BIG CROWDS, BIG ACTION
The Cancer Research Classic never disappoints.
It doesn't matter what part of the event you examine, Merrick and his basketball-crazed team delivers.
Whether it's the big-name teams or players, officiating or even the crowds, the CRC is firmly established as one of the premier basketball showcase events in the United States.
And judging by Friday night's action and crowds at Wheeling Jesuit University's McDonough Center there's a chance that Merrick's brainchild could eventually outgrow the only home it's ever known as a standing-room crowd shoehorned its way for a quartet of games.
This was the first year for the truly expanded Friday card and there should be no doubt that it'll remain a part of future events.
The best part Merrick did was line up two area teams - Linsly and Wheeling Central - in the opening night card, which drew out the casual fan along with the basketball fans, who just can't get enough roundball.
In talking to Merrick a few times Friday night, he was absolutely thrilled with the crowds.
Another full slate of five games is on top for this afternoon with the first tipping off at 12:30 and the final member of the Wheeling trio - Wheeling Park - will take on St. Joseph's Prep, which features Steve Vasturia, who is heading to Notre Dame next year.
Like we've written in the past, there's no reason for a basketball fan - or a sports fan in general - to be sitting on his or couch today.
GAME OF THE NIGHT
The premier game of the evening was Prime Prep against Huntington Prep in a battle of unbeatens.
Prime Prep came out and played a zone much of the first half and the Huntington Prep didn't shoot well from the field, meshing just 3-of-20 from behind the arc and it struggled early to get the ball to the Class of 2013's top-ranked player in Andrew Wiggins.
Prime Prep features Class of 2014 standout Emmanuel Mudiay, who has a laundry list of schools seeking his services at the next level.
On top of Mudiay, the Truth got exceptional play on the block from Jordan Mickey and Karviar Shepherd.
Prime Prep led by as many as 17 in the second half, but Huntington Prep finally got Wiggins, who scored 18 points, going. They cut the lead to 10 in the latter stages of the fourth and Prime didn't help its cause by missing three consecutive front ends of bonus situations.
"I thought the two biggest keys of the game were early when their post players scored on consecutive possessions against us and late when we had a chance, but we couldn't capitalize on their missed foul shots," said Huntington Prep coach Rob Fulford. "We didn't shoot it well from the outside and that zone really hurt us."
Other scores from the opening day of the CRC were: Seton LaSalle 63, Linsly 44; Mercersburg Academy 58, Wheeling Central 41 and Lower Merion, Pa. 71, St. Raymond 44.
Mercersburg Academy's Dre Willis put on an absolute show, scoring 26 points, including three dunks.
Lower Merion, which is also known as Kobe Bryant's alma mater, received a strong game from Yohanny Dalembert, who is the younger brother of Milwaukee Bucks' center Samuel Dalembert.
Long-time Ohio Valley official Don Cash worked the opening game of the Cancer Research Classic, which saw Linsly fall to Seton LaSalle.
He promptly changed clothes and headed to work the varsity game of Bellaire at Martins Ferry.
We ran into him between games in the lobby. He said he'd never miss working the CRC, as long as it would have him, because his father passed away after a bout with cancer, so the cause of the event is extremely important to him.
KENTUCKY head coach John Calipari was sitting at press row for the Huntington Prep vs. Prime Prep game. He was welcomed to a modest applause when he was recognized on the public address system. From there, he was besieged by autograph and photograph seekers and signed willingly when there was a stop in play.
THE OFFICIATING during the first day was top-shelf. Doug Costain - one of the area's most highly regarded officials - assigns the games for the weekend. He blends area officials with a lot of college officials and it's worked brilliantly. The officials let the players play, which is what the fans want to see.
DEION SANDERS, who is one of the top supporters of Prime Prep, which is located near Dallas, often times makes the trips with the Truth's basketball team. However, he wasn't in Wheeling Friday night.
TONIGHT'S FINAL two games - Simeon vs. Montverde and D.C. Gonzaga vs. Salesian - will be broadcast on ESPN2 and ESPN-U, respectively at 6 and 8.
Staskey can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at TLSportsSeth