They slip under the radar, and they rarely get headlines, but often they're the hardest-working players on the floor, because every minute, every possession and every point is precious when you're a walk-on. They're usually considered team motivators and men of character that improve team focus. Case in point: Kentucky's Sam Malone.
Malone spent his life, from age 8 on, flying from Boston to Coach John Calipari's basketball camps. At the end of high school the 5-11 guard had no scholarship offers, but the relationship he had formed with Calipari, which is now chronicled in this fantastic Salon.com piece by Brian Weinberg, proved steadfast. Calipari offered him a spot, and Malone went on to amass 13 minutes of playing time, six points and one championship ring. He also now has over 10,770 followers on his twitter (@SamMaloneuk13), and injured his knee for the fourth time in five years
Malone was a celebrity everywhere he went. Weinberg shared this tidbit: "At the Southeastern Conference tournament in New Orleans earlier in March, Sam was walking down Bourbon Street with his family, when a phalanx of Kentucky fans started chanting his name. 'It was crazy,' he says. 'They were chanting, ‘Sam! Sam! Sam!’ My younger brother couldn’t believe it.”'
At the end of last season Calipari offered Malone a scholarship along with fellow walk-on Brian Long.
With Malone no longer among their ranks, who will carry the proudly bear the walk-on torch for 2012-2013?
Here are the best candidates I've dug up.
Note: Not all D-I walk-ons are on this list, just most of the most notable, and only those walk-ons which are eligible to play this upcoming season.
Luke Davis is probably the most talked-about walk-on going into the season. The 6-0 guard transferred from Gardner Webb, where he was selected to the Big South Conference All-freshman team after posting a 26.7 percent assist rate in his only season at that lesser North Carolina school, to UNC where he is a preferred walk-on for Roy Williams.
Davis was allowed to practice with his new team last season, but will see his first game-action as a Tarheel this season as a backcourt reserve behind freshman Marcus Paige and senior Dexter Strickland. Davis still has three years of eligibility remaining, so get used to seeing his name.
Okay, maybe Adria Gasol, a UCLA walk-on, is the most talked-about going into the season, but for the wrong reasons. True, he's the younger brother of NBA big men Pau and Marc, but Adria is nothing like them so far. As polish scout Rafal Juc told Jeff Eisenberg, Adria seems to share nothing but blood with his brothers: "Adria was on the radars of a couple of Spanish agents and scouts, but they don't see him in the future on as high a level as his brothers play. His basketball IQ is limited, he shows some serious lack of basketball fundamentals and struggles due to many injuries."
When the NCAA handed-down a postseason ban to UCF that will go into effect this season, senior walk-on Bobby Horodyski received a giant promotion. The former Marshall guard logged just six game appearances and nothing else in any other column save for a turnover last season, but with Marcus Jordan, C.J. Reed and Josh Crittle gone, Horodyski may even be in the running for a starting spot. Even so, Keith Clanton, the Knights' leading scorer and rebounder has assured everyone that he will be returning.
Tyler Self and Corey Haith both are playing for their fathers as freshman walk-ons this season. The younger Haith played sparingly during Mizzou's summer trip to Europe, and the younger Self probably won't contribute at all for Kansas anytime soon. Apparently playing for your father a la Ray McCallum and Doug McDermott really is the cool thing to do nowadays.
Alex Budke has a compelling story. His father, Kurt was Oklahoma State's women's basketball coach until he perished in the tragic plane crash that killed him and four others in Nov. 2011. Alex was playing for an NAIA team at the time, but has since decided that he belongs in Stillwater near his family. Head coach Travis Ford offered him a walk-on spot on the Oklahoma State team. The Oklahoman published a great read on Alex and his new team.
If you can't choose just one sport, why not play both? Memphis walk-on Sam Craft is doing just that. The 5-11 guard/quarterack has a football scholarship to go along with a commitment to play for Josh Pastner in the winter. “I talked to (Memphis basketball) coach Pastner and he’s 100% OK with me playing both sports,” Craft told the Memphis Commercial-Appeal. “As soon as I’m done with football, I’ll play basketball.”
A walk-on could start at point guard for Houston this season. Jimmie Jones saw only 11.4 percent of the Cougars' minutes last season, but revealed flashes of absolute brilliance. He only needed 21 minutes to become the star in Houston's late-game loss to Eastern Carolina writes John Royal.
If there's a walk-on anywhere that deserves a scholarship it's BYU's Craig Cusick. As a 6-2 junior guard Cusick averaged nearly 17 minutes off the bench to go with a very respectable assist rate (19.6 percent) and steal rate (2.7 percent). He even started three games last season, and scored 12 points against Marquette in the Cougar's final game of the season. With the recent career-ending injury to Chris Collinsworth, the Daily Herald thinks Cusick is the most likely choice to pick up the extra scholarship. He certainly deserves it.
Bill Carmody is carving out a tradition of walk-ons turned starters. Carmody, whose Northwestern frontcourt picks up a lot of size going into next season, added 6-10 walk-on Aaron Liberman of Israel at the end of August. He'll compete with 7-2 Chier Ajou, 7-0 Alex Olah, 6-9 TCU transfer Nikola Cerina and 6-8 Louisville transfer Jared Swopshire for minutes. Wow. Returning senior Reggie Hearn also began his Northwestern career as a walk-on and will certainly start for this season.
Just yesterday Chris Leppanen decided to leave behing his NAIA team to play as a reserve guard walk-on at Siena.
Noel Jones is the mystery walk-on at Syracuse. He's a 6-6 native of Nova Scotia.
There's also Marvin Jean, a heralded JUCO transfer from New York that will pay his own way at Utah State according to the Salt Lake Tribune.
Chris Burrows is an editor at RuntheFloor.com, and a graduate journalism student at DePaul University that covers mostly Horizon League and mid-major college basketball. Follow him at @HLHoops.