Final Four walk-ons are 'true servants' with chance for a ring

Michigan State's walk-ons stand shoulder to shoulder with the team's stars in pursuit of a championship. Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire

MINNEAPOLIS -- A horde of reporters poured into Texas Tech's locker room for media availability, one by one crowding the space where Avery Benson was supposed to be.

To the left of Benson's assigned locker sat Matt Mooney, a graduate transfer without whom the Red Raiders would not have reached Saturday's Final Four. It was Mooney who drew all of this attention, not the redshirt freshman with the Arkansas drawl who, without as much as a word, parked himself in a vacant locker adjacent to the Pac-Man arcade machine provided by the NCAA to the teams meeting in the national semifinals.

This moment, in a way, provides a small glimpse into life as a walk-on at one of the best Division I college basketball programs in the country. It's a journey filled with sacrifice and thankless work behind the scenes that comes with little public recognition.

These players get to be a part of college basketball's biggest weekend, just like their teammates who make all the headlines. It's a humbling yet rewarding experience that goes beyond how many minutes -- if any -- they log on the court inside U.S. Bank Stadium.

For walk-ons, the chance to earn a small-time role in big-time college basketball comes sans athletic scholarship, but includes plenty of grunt work. Auburn's Cole Blackstock logged exactly one minute of tournament time in a blowout win over North Carolina in the Sweet 16. His teammate Thomas Collier hasn't seen the floor since late January. Their efforts are concentrated on going toe-to-toe with the Tigers' bigs in practice, putting in the work on scout team so Austin Wiley, Anfernee McLemore and Horace Spencer can help Auburn take another step toward winning its first national title.

The heartwarming tales of perseverance, like the one lived out by Michigan State's Kenny Goins, who transitioned from a walk-on to the player entrusted to hit the game-winning 3-pointer to send the Spartans to the Final Four, is the universal driving force behind forsaking the playing time they could earn elsewhere for an opportunity to live out a dream.

"Coming here you want to try to put yourself in one of the highest levels of play and competition and maybe you make it, maybe you don't," Texas Tech guard Andrew Sorrells said. "Maybe you work your way into a small role or maybe you don't. As a walk-on, our games come in practice. These guys get ready for games but it's our job to get them ready for that on the scout team, replicating the opponents and what they do well."

If they make the iconic "One Shining Moment" montage, it'll probably be for serving up a dose of bench mob antics over any action they carry out on the floor. But there's no mistaking their importance to the overall success of their respective teams.

"If you want to get our staff mad or get me mad, disrespect one of our walk-ons," Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. "I tell everybody that because those guys are such a part of it. They're the true servants on our team. They do all the stuff and don't get much of the credit.

"That's why I love this team. Our managers, our walk-ons, we're all part of it. There's not any differentiation, and I love that about them. I can't say enough for those guys. Usually, it's your walk-ons and your managers who end up going on to be coaches or they're going to be the CEOs because they learn how to serve without the attention. I love their heart, and they're a part of something, and they represent our program in the best way possible."

This wasn't the role Braden Burke envisioned for himself when he sought to transfer from low-major Robert Morris to a program closer to home. His offers came from of Ball State, Milwaukee and Oakland. Then, seemingly out of "nowhere," according to Burke, Michigan State came calling.

Burke's role as a preferred walk-on for the Spartans has come with an adjustment period after having to sit out the 2017-18 season because of transfer rules. His playing time dipped from 15.2 minutes and 4.3 points per game at RMU to just over a minute on average at Michigan State this season. That adjustment has admittedly come as a bit of culture shock -- one that kicks back dividends in the form of getting to experience being on a team that goes deep in the NCAA tournament.

"As a kid you don't dream of going to Robert Morris, you dream of playing at a Power 5, big-time school," Burke said. "That was always something I wanted to pursue and never really had the opportunity to. So when I had it, no matter scholarship or not, I knew I had to go for it."

Virginia forward Austin Katstra is carrying out his family's legacy. His father, Dirk, and grandfather, Richard, both suited up for the Cavaliers basketball team he dreamed about playing for since childhood.

To make that dream a reality, Katstra had to pay his own way early on. Then came a life-changing moment in January that caught him by surprise.

One by one, Virginia players finished practice by shooting free throws. As Katstra approached the line, Bennett stressed the importance of these shots while the rest of the team looked on. Upon nailing his shot, Katstra was informed that he was being put on scholarship. His teammates erupted.

"Probably the biggest free throw I've ever shot, even though I didn't know it at the time," Katstra said.

By the time many of these players get to check into a game, the game clock is often close to running out while the score is bolstered by a comfortable margin. That's when these players get to see their college basketball dreams come to fruition.

Near the end of a 19-point win over Texas on senior night, Sorrells heard his name called at the end of the bench prior to the under-4-minute timeout.

"Coach [Chris] Beard drew up a play and I was going to set a ghost screen," Sorrells recalled. "They were going to throw the ball to me and they said either shoot it or go drive and get fouled. Texas' starters were still in the game at this point, and I shot it and banked in a 3 and the crowd went wild."

Though their opportunities are limited and their impact is felt most away from televised games, they too have goals of shining on college basketball's biggest stage. These walk-ons are just as big a part of cutting down the nets at U.S. Bank Stadium as the guys draining shots on the two biggest nights in college basketball.

It's what makes the sacrifice worth it.

"I might not contribute as much as Matt Mooney or Jarrett [Culver], but I still get to grind with them every day and do my part and what Coach asks me to do," Benson said. "I believe that all of us walk-ons definitely earned our keep. If we get a chance to put that ring on, it'll be all that much sweeter."