Brandon Lopez scored 14 points in the Rocky Top League championship game on Tuesday night. He sliced through the lane for layups, looped to the hoop for floaters and buried a 3-pointer. His team, the News Sentinel, outgunned Jordan McRae and Campus Lights, 107-97, at Christian Academy of Knoxville.
Despite playing the part of a catalyst, Lopez barely cracked a smile until it was over.
“I take basketball seriously,” the walk-on Tennessee sophomore said. “I don’t care if I’m playing in the Olympics or if I’m playing against my 5-year-old cousin, I’m always gonna go hard.”
Which is why Lopez, a Knoxville native and Austin-East High School graduate, is straight from central casting for the Vols.
The perfunctory role of the basketball walk-on is to be one-part mascot, one-part workhorse. It’s on a need-to-know basis: he needs to know there are 12 men ahead of him and the spotlight doesn’t have room for 13.
The routine is thankless. And the best walk-ons, the ones who thrive and wiggle into the rotation, are the ones who feed off that thanklessness.
Lopez ate well last season. Thanks to a blend of injuries and spotty point guard play, the 6-foot-1 grinder appeared in 17 games, logging 98 minutes.
“I thought I responded to my role well,” said Lopez, who scored five points, dished eight assists against nine turnovers in 2012-13. “I could have done more offensively and probably turned the ball over too much, but I did what I needed to do defensively and ran the team.”
And his play proved Lopez might, at a lower Division I level, be able to be scholarship player and log loftier playing time. He didn’t fill the box score, but he held his own in the SEC. Some walk-ons might have used those game tapes as a ticket out.
“I never gave it a thought,” he said. “I’m a Tennessee Vol. Coach (Cuonzo) Martin took me when no one wanted me. I’d never betray that.”
So Lopez will return in 2013-14 as a junior walk-on. The Vols welcome point guards Antonio Barton, a senior transfer from Memphis, and Darius Thompson, a skilled freshman from Murfreesboro. Those minutes that fell to Lopez as a necessity last season may not exist this time around.
“It’s cool with me,” he said. “It’s a character building thing and that’s my job. You’ve got to be mentally tough just to be a college athlete, but especially to be a walk-on.”
At the same time, there’s no predicting how Martin could react if things go awry next year.
After point guard Trae Golden was injured in a key late January meeting with Vanderbilt last year, Martin called down to the end of the bench. Lopez played 10 crucial minutes and dished three assists without a turnover.
“There’s no hesitancy about putting him on the floor, because he’ll be ready to play,” Martin said afterward.
Should the occasion arise again in 2013-14, Lopez fully intends to be ready once again.
“Being a walk-on,” Lopez said, “that’s just a title — that’s all. I’m here to make the team better.”
News Sentinel 107, Campus Lights 97: In front of a capacity crowd, McRae and former Vol Wayne Chism scored 51 points apiece in a back-and-forth duel. Chism was aided by 25 points from Galen Campbell for the News Sentinel. McRae, who averaged 44.5 points in six games, was named league MVP.
Choice Spine 105, DeRoyal Industries 97: Despite 33 points from UT’s D’Montre Edwards and 18 from A.J. Davis, DeRoyal Industries fell to Choice Spine in the consolation game.
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn