Aspiring Wolverines Test Their Mettle in Open Tryouts

(Students warm up at the NUVI Basketball Practice Facility before walk-on tryouts. Photo by Hunter Hall.)

The Utah Valley men’s basketball team held open, walk-on tryouts on Wednesday, Sept. 9, at the NUVI Basketball facility on campus.

Fifteen players from around the world worked out in front of UVU coaches and staff for a chance to be the chosen one — or two — selected to bolster the Wolverines’ 2020-21 roster. While the talent and experience level varied among the participants, the effort level was consistently high.

Each player had their height, weight, wingspan and vertical leap measured before assistant coach Todd Phillips addressed the team. Phillips said coaches were looking for players willing to put in the work required of being a walk-on player — advising them that the role of a walk-on is anything but flashy.

“You’re not impressing us by jacking shots from out here,” he said, standing at center court. “As a walk-on, we need you to do all the grunt work for us, to make the team better. You’re in or you’re out.”

For the next 90 minutes, Phillips led the athletes through a series of drills, workouts and finally, a few short five-on-five scrimmages.

Phillips admitted that a lot of the evaluation is based on a player’s size and body. Athleticism, strength and physicality are a large part of Division I basketball — coaches want to make sure that walk-on players can withstand the rigors of a lengthy college basketball season and be ready to step in if one of the players ahead of them on the depth chart suffers an injury.

Everyone on the staff mentioned looking for players with good attitudes and work ethic, but each coach added their own perspective on what makes an ideal walk-on player.

“I just look for someone with a unique skill,” said head coach Mark Madsen. “The NBA, a lot of the time, is made up of specialists. The guys that can do everything — they’re in the Hall of Fame. I want to look at the guys out here. Are they the greatest rebounder in this group? Are they the top shooter in this group? Do they have a specific skill that could help our team in some way?”

Graduate assistant coach Ronnie Ross said the coaches are often looking for attitude just as much as they are athletic ability. He said he noticed a player early on in the drills who shied away from starting in the front of the line, as if unsure of the instructions that had been given.

“We need people who can listen and are ready to go when it’s time,” said Ross. “We’re looking for basic things, athleticism, ball-handling, etc. Anything to let us know they’ve played basketball before. Just basic things, like can they make a layup with both hands?”

While Ross was speaking, a player’s left-handed layup attempt clanged off the front of the rim, underscoring his point.

As the workout wore on, though, participants expressed optimism at their chance to make the team.

“I feel like I have a good chance,” said Brenden Crowther from Alamos, Colorado. “If I take care of the ball and just play my game I think I have a good chance.”

“I didn’t think I was going to be doing this, but I’m feeling pretty good,” added Kevin Santiago, who played high school basketball at Timpview High School in Provo. “I would feel a lot better if I hadn’t bulked up and gained 15 pounds in the last month, though.”

Others were not so optimistic.

“I’m just off today for some reason,” said another student. “It’s not the day to be off, but I’m not all there with making my shots. I’ll try to turn things around. I’d really like to be a part of the team here. I feel that I would be a really good fit, I would just need to get up to speed.”

While few participants had previous college basketball experience, many had significant playing time in high school or AAU basketball.

“I played all growing up in high school in New Zealand,” said Keejon Sloan, who is from Auckland. “We won nationals when I was a freshman. My strength is definitely my ball handling. I like to look for the pass rather than to score. I haven’t played the best today, I feel like my effort has been pretty good though.”

Troy Newton, from Pensacola, Florida, admitted that although he ran hurdles in high school, he has no real basketball experience. His naiveté didn’t stop him from putting himself out there — he said he believes basketball is something he has the “ability to be really good at,” given the right training and coaching.

“Every year is different, we’re just trying to find the best kid,” Phillips said. “We do this every year because you never know when you’re going to find that diamond in the rough.”

Bradley Kitchen was that diamond in the rough last year for this Wolverine squad. Kitchen, a native of Springville, Utah, was given a scholarship and made a member of the active roster his senior year after trying to walk on his freshman and sophomore years, and serving as team manager as a junior.

“Last year, [Bradley Kitchen] went from a walk-on, to getting key minutes in a road game at North Dakota State, to, three months later getting a scholarship,” said Madsen. “That’s a rare case. Brad Kitchen is a rare person, but things can happen.”

Following the official workouts, Madsen brought sophomore guard Jordan Brinson out to address those vying to be his future teammates. Brinson, who had watched the latter half of the tryout, said he was impressed with the effort and talent he saw.

“I like the way you guys compete,” Brinson said. “You all came out and worked really hard.”

Madsen said he was impressed as well, and expressed sincere regret that he has such limited roster space.

“Collectively, I thought that group was phenomenal,” he said. “They went hard. I’m very grateful to the guys who came out to try out. Coach Phillips worked them hard and I thought they responded really well. It’s hard to come to a walk-on tryout, it takes courage. They’re really putting themselves out there.”

Madsen said he hopes to have a final roster decision made within the next 7-10 days, to give time for the player(s) to adjust and be brought up to speed before the start of the season.

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