By Javier Hernandez
For most college basketball programs, walk-ons are essentially glorified practice players who only earn playing time in blowout victories. In coach Eric Musselman’s program, walk-ons have played a much greater role and will continue to play an elevated part in this upcoming season.
At times last year, point guard Juwan Anderson, who has now transferred to play at Cal State East Bay, handled backup duties, backing up starter Lindsey Drew. Before his departure, Anderson played in 23 games. When Marqueze Coleman went down with an ankle injury, Anderson’s defense and hustle were integral to the second unit’s stability.
Musselman has stressed the importance of walk-ons in his system. He values their role in game preparations and has not shied away from playing them in games.
“We have a high value of them. We have guys who are good culture guys and help us in the locker room, help us in practice,” Musselman said. “And we’ve proven that we can trust them in game situations.”
Now in his second year as a walk-on, sophomore guard David Cunningham, who earned a spot last year via open tryout, hopes to bring back his energy to make practices more competitive.
“Last year, I came here as just a regular student,” Cunningham said. “I didn’t plan on playing basketball, but I made the team through an open tryout. My role right now is to be a solid practice player and to come off the bench and provide a lot of energy.”
Joining Cunningham as the only walk-on mainstay is sophomore John Carlson, who joined the team late in the season last year. Carlson had given up on his basketball career and was working for the South Reno Athletic Club when his boss reached out to Musselman in hopes of a tryout.
“He called the coaches last year without asking me,” Carlson said. “And all of a sudden I got the call from the coaches and they wanted to meet me, and shortly after I was at my first practice and I loved the team.”
Carlson, a local who played for Damonte Ranch, had fond memories of the Pack teams of the early 2000s.
“It was always my dream to play for the Wolf Pack,” Carlson said. “I went to a lot of the games. The crowd was crazy all of the time and I talked about it with my friends the next day. Then we would re-enact the games on the playground during lunch.”
Coming into this season, Musselman and staff have recruited well as far as scholarship players but have also been impressive in bringing on quality players as walk-ons. This year, he has added David Kyle, Charlie Tooley and Colin Weaver.
David Kyle played for Reno High. Musselman added him to the roster to provide size and rebounding. He projects him as a developmental player who will contribute with more experience in the system.
Charlie Tooley, who had offers from Sacramento State, UC Irvine and UC Davis, is a left-handed scorer who has the ability to shoot from deep, has excellent court vision and brings intensity on the defensive end.
“I like being the energy guy,” Tooley said. “I like hustling all over the floor. I talk a lot during practice, and just getting better every day and just being there for my teammates is my mindset.”
One of Nevada’s biggest offensive deficiencies last year was its 3-point shooting, with teams capitalizing on this as they often played the Pack in a zone defense. Transfer Colin Weaver will hope to be the Pack’s marksman when faced with the zone.
Weaver was a former scholarship player at Oakland University who transferred to Iowa Western Junior College before Musselman offered him a walk-on spot. Weaver will most likely receive the most playing time this upcoming season due to his experience and shooting. For him, Musselman’s philosophy was what sold him to join the team.
“He needs a guy to come in and play hard,” Weaver said. “There was a need for what I can do: energy, speed and 3-point shooting. He gives us the freedom to be more of a player and expand on what you can do but at the same time play within the realm of your game.”
Nevada’s roster will feature five walk-ons this season, and the Pack has increased the competitiveness of practice and continually pushes the scholarship players to their limits. While most of the attention will be on the scholarship players, Carlson wants Pack fans to take a closer look at the walk-ons this upcoming season.
“The walk-ons on this team are not bad at all,” Carlson said. “We’re all good athletes. Not quite the Fab Five but the Fab Five in our own way.”
Javier Hernandez can be reached at Neil@sagebrush.unr.edu and on Twitter @Sagebrushsports.