Meet the Red Squad.
They’re a group of five Gonzaga walk-ons who, joined by Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer and occasionally by freshman Luke Meikle, form the Red Squad in practice and provide scout-team looks for the Bulldogs as they prepare for games.
The role of a walk-on can be rewarding and thankless at the same time.
“It’s a grind,” said freshman Dustin Triano, son of Portland Trail Blazers assistant and Canadian national team coach Jay Triano. “You can work as hard as you want, but you’re put in at practice and you have to defend against Kevin (Pangos) and David (Stockton). That’s tough. They beat you up pretty good, but it’s worth it and it makes you better. It’s fun; I like working hard.”
There’ll be no shortage of that over the next five months for the five: Triano, sophomore Rem Bakamus, senior Brian Bhaskar and freshmen Leo Roese and Connor Griffin. They essentially do everything required of scholarship players – lifting, practices, meetings, etc. – but rarely, if at all, see game action.
Bakamus appeared in nine blowouts last year, logging 22 minutes and scoring seven points. Bhaskar played nine minutes in four games. He scored his first point in an exhibition rout of Simon Fraser on Oct. 25.
“You want to reward them, they do so many selfless things for you,” coach Mark Few said. “It’s not always possible or the timing isn’t right.”
Gonzaga’s walk-on tradition is firmly established, from Mike Nilson in the late 1990s to Mike Hart’s emergence as a key player the last few seasons. Stockton, like Griffin, was an invited walk-on. On the current roster, only Kevin Pangos (2,172 minutes) and Gary Bell Jr. (1,926) have played more minutes at Gonzaga than Stockton’s 1,738.
“We’ve shown over the years if you can play, you can play,” Few said. “It doesn’t matter where you came from or the scholarship situation.”
The 6-foot-4, 205-pound Griffin, a standout football and basketball player at Lake Oswego High, appears to have the best chance of contributing this season or down the road. He had scholarship offers in football from Portland State and Northern Colorado.
“I’ve grown up around basketball, I felt like that’s what I wanted to play,” Griffin said. “Northern Colorado was trying to convert me (from a wide receiver) to tight end. At those places I would have gone into the program where it would be an immediate impact. Here, I’ll have to work a little harder and make a name for myself like past walk-ons.”
Griffin, in some ways, reminds the coaching staff of Hart. They’re both Portland, Ore.-area products, defensive-minded and similar in stature. Hart’s smarts and relentless effort eventually led to a starting position and he was captain of Sports Illustrated’s All-Glue team.
“I talked to Mike and he told me exactly what it entails being a walk-on and what you’re expected to do,” said Griffin, who scored six points versus Simon Fraser.
Said Bakamus: “Connor’s not your average walk-on in a sense. Physically he’s pound-for-pound one of the strongest guys on the team. You see him get in a game and score six points effortlessly. He has a bright future. I know he misses football, but he gets after it out here.”
Triano, who attended prep school in New Hampshire, had interest from a few Division III teams and walk-on opportunities at Saint Louis and Texas Christian.
“This is closer to home and it’s a good program with lots of history with walk-ons,” he said.
The 6-2 Bhaskar averaged 20 points and eight rebounds at Stevenson High in Pebble Beach, Calif. He was on Gonzaga’s rowing team as a freshman and the school’s club basketball team as a sophomore. He excelled in an open tryout and made the Zags last season.
Roese, a native of Sao Paulo, Brazil, is sidelined after undergoing knee surgery.
Bakamus didn’t play in the exhibition game because he’s planning on redshirting.
“I already had it in my mind I’d be here five years,” he said. “The numbers were a lot lower last year and I’d get to play at the end of games. We have a lot of guys this year. I think it’s better for me to get stronger, work on my game and be able to contribute more in practice in the future.”