Behind the glamour of traveling the country on private planes and wearing more pairs of Jordan shoes than one knows what to do with, the life of a Marquette basketball walk-on requires just about everything physical but walking.
The Golden Eagles will look to add a walk-on when they hold tryouts on Sept. 15, following the graduation of Rob Frozena.
The tryout will take place earlier than in past years, as it is the first day the NCAA allows more than four players to be together with coaches in a basketball setting. Assistant coach Brad Autry said the team moved up the date in order to help a player who may make the team acclimate faster and join in on practices and workouts sooner.
Recent walk-ons have included junior guard Dave Singleton, who walked on to the team in 2010 but was ineligible due to NCAA transfer rules. He will not be with the team in 2011. South Dakota transfer guard Jake Thomas originally joined as a walk-on, but has since earned a scholarship for the 2011-2012 season.
Like Singleton, Thomas will have to sit out a season because of his transfer, and with one scholarship open, the Golden Eagles have just 11 eligible players heading into the season. Thomas will be able to practice with the team and potentially adding a walk-on will give the team another body in practice.
Because of the one unused scholarship, Marquette looks to add a walk-on to fill a team need for repetitions in practice.
This year’s need could be at the point, as junior guard Junior Cadougan is the team’s only point guard with college experience. A big man would be best-case scenario, but Autry knows seven-footers don’t walk through the door every day.
“Nobody ever has enough big men,” he joked. “Except UConn.”
In selecting a potential walk-on, Autry described the process as very similar to recruiting. Needs and skill sets are essential in the evaluation, but work ethic and commitment are just as important.
“Can you survive practices and are you bringing positive things to our team through academics, basketball and community relations,” Autry explained. “Are you tough mentally and physically and are you working every day to be a better person and get better like we all are. As a walk-on, we don’t need any issues. We need to never have to worry about you.”
The one piece of advice Autry gives to any prospective walk-on is that he must be in peak physical condition for the tryout. While almost nothing can compare to the team’s actual practices, a player can ready himself for the tryout in advance. Not only will that help the player during the tryout, but Autry said it also shows the coaching staff both an intensity and commitment level.
Autry said the tryout will be “one-tenth of a normal practice” in terms of difficulty, and while players will have a chance to show off their skill sets in a number of drills, stamina and focus will factor in largely as well.
“We do want to put some strain on them, in terms of when you get tired,” Autry said. “What is your physical condition level and how do you respond when you get fatigued? Do you just float off into space or do you keep fighting through it? As much as you can on a limited scope, you try to get an idea about the kid’s toughness physically and also mentally.”
As the staff narrows their list down of potential walk-on candidates, they will have as many as two additional tryouts to further analyze the players before making a decision.
“It’s just like recruiting,” Autry said. “You need to see kids in a variety of atmospheres and a variety of situations.”
If the staff selects a player to add to the roster, it will do a background check by calling various coaches and references to find out more about the student-athlete.
“We’re not going to take a guy we don’t know anything about,” Autry said. “There’s too much at stake, as you can imagine.”
Once the background check has been completed and the staff has made its decision, it makes sure he is academically eligible and passes through the NCAA Clearinghouse, something Autry said has not been a problem in the past.
After a grueling tryout that sometimes can span over two or three days, it is then that the real work begins.
Frozena, Marquette’s only four-year walk-on, quickly de-bunked the myth that being a walk-on is easy or, for that matter, any different than being on scholarship.
“You have to give the same effort, the same intensity,” he said. “And even though you may not have Division I talent, you’re expected to be a Division I basketball player.
“You have to be willing to rebound for a guy at 11 p.m. if they want to get up shots, you have to be willing to push them as hard as they need to go even if they don’t want to go that hard or you don’t,” he added.
Coach Buzz Williams shared the same sentiment, explaining that a walk-on will put in effort that may not yield the returns that scholarship players will receive.
“Being a walk-on at this level takes a special kind of person,” he said. “The work is very demanding and the rewards, if any, are limited at best. Hard work and dedication are without question the biggest attributes necessary for success.”
Despite not taking the traditional route to the team, current Marquette players make acclimating to the team an easy one for walk-ons, finding common ground as skilled basketball players.
“They’re just guys and they’re really good at basketball,” Autry said. “So typically, if [the walk-on] has the kind of personality we’re looking for, he’s able to move in easily.”
When all is said and done, a walk-on will not be judged on points per game or by the noise in the Bradley Center as he checks in to the game during a blowout.
Rather, complementing the team in practice, working as hard as scholarship athletes and being a positive reflection of the program weigh heavily into the legacy he will leave.
Autry described Frozena as “the best,” citing his ability to be a catalyst in practices and never being a worry for the coaching staff off the court.
For Frozena, he knew the work and dedication he put into his craft was never going to amount to major minutes, but the experience of being a walk-on was more than enough.
“I loved my role and I got a sense of satisfaction knowing how hard I was working,” Frozena said. “I wanted the experience and it’s what I wanted to do. I wanted be a part of it.”
The Golden Eagles hope their next walk-on will have that same attitude, understanding his role as a walk-on by hitting the ground running. Not walking.