‘You have to bring it’: Gonzaga’s five walk-ons push starters, rotation players to improve
Nov. 7, 2020 Updated Sat., Nov. 7, 2020 at 10:15 p.m.
Evan Inglesby had options, including scholarship offers at strong Division II schools, but only one program offered a deep connection to his ancestry.
The Gonzaga basketball walk-on’s grandfather, Bill Suter, was inducted into GU’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 1989. The 5-foot-9 Suter was a three-time All-Big Sky third baseman, and his 1,354 career points in basketball ranks No. 22 in school history.
“Whenever I walk by his spot in the Hall of Fame I look at his picture. It’s pretty sweet,” said Inglesby, whose cousin, Colin Suter, is a pitcher on Gonzaga’s baseball team. “He’s in paradise with me on the basketball team. I’m convinced he’ll buy an apartment up here and live here and come to the games.”
Junior guard Matthew Lang could have gone the D-II route, had his school paid for and seen plenty of playing time. He chose to walk on at Gonzaga, and he’s become a fan favorite – it might have something to do with hitting 3-pointers that provide coupons for free tacos – and unofficial captain of the team’s five walk-ons.
“The experience,” Lang said of his collegiate decision. “Not many people can say they are on the No. 1 team in the country that has a chance to win March Madness every year. For my future, I know basketball isn’t going to be my life after college so get the most out of it as I can right now.”
Walk-ons have had long-standing, meaningful roles in the program, often with little fanfare. They might be a defender for 15 solid minutes of drills or simply watch play after play from the sidelines. They put in the same amount of time as scholarship counterparts, but playing time is typically scarce or nonexistent.
“You have to bring it, that’s what the coaches need from us,” said the 6-foot-2 Lang, who was put on scholarship last semester but is currently a walk-on. “You have to bring energy to all the practices and do everything you can to make the rest of the team better by playing hard, getting into them on defense and trying to steal the ball.
“You have to bring your all every time you come to practice and even on the bench during games so the other guys have as much energy as they need.”
With Lang, Inglesby, second-year walk-on Will Graves and newcomers Colby Lee and Abe Eagle, the Zags have a reliable point guard, promising shooting guard, hot-shooting wing, athletic ‘4’ man and capable big. Five walk-ons on one team is rare – Lang recalls four in his freshman season – and the talent and size of this group is even more rare.
Finding walk-on bigs is usually a futile pursuit. Eagle, from Los Angeles, is 6-9 and 225 pounds. Brooks, also from L.A., is listed at 6-7 and 210.
“They’re all guys that had real college opportunities at lower levels and sought out Gonzaga,” said assistant coach Brian Michaelson, who walked on at GU in 2000 and eventually earned a scholarship and was named co-captain. “We’ve been way short on walk-ons, but Matt has turned into a great player and Will is a very good walk-on. Somehow all three freshmen were set on coming here. We usually go 1 for 3 or 0 for 3.”
The walk-ons are known as the White squad because they wear white uniforms at practice. As the season approaches, they’ll morph into the Red Squad, likely joining sit-out transfer Andrew Nembhard and perhaps sophomores Martynas Arlauskas and Pavel Zakharov on the scout team that helps GU prepare for opponents.
Michaelson said the 2017 Red Squad – Rui Hachimura, Killian Tillie, Zach Norvell Jr., Bryan Alberts, Ryan Edwards, Dustin Triano and Rem Bakamus – was probably the gold standard for scout teams.
Lang is well-versed on GU tradition because his family is longtime friends with Mike Hart’s family. Lang, Hart and Michaelson were products of Portland’s Jesuit High. Hart is Zag walk-on royalty after becoming a key starter on the 2013 team that reached No. 1 for the first time in program history.
Lang’s connection to Gonzaga grew stronger when he played on the same AAU team as Zag recruit Kamaka Hepa, who eventually picked Texas.
“The coaches watched me quite a bit and we got in contact,” Lang said. “That’s how it started out.”
Lang has made the most of his 83 minutes in 32 appearances over the last two seasons with five 3-pointers, including a few that rewarded fans with free tacos. He’s heard students refer to him as Taco Lang and Matty Tacos. He saw a Twitter post suggesting the Chalupa Cannon.
“I would say it gets a little harder (in his third season),” he said. “Outside of basketball gets harder. I’m doing accounting and the first two years you’re not taking classes in your major. Those kick in and that makes it more difficult.”
The 6-4, 200-pound Inglesby was a standout at Barlow High in Gresham, Oregon. He averaged 20.9 points as a senior and exited as the third leading scorer in school history. His father coached his teams since fourth grade and assisted at Barlow.
“I’ve learned a lot through Matt,’ ” Inglesby said. “Also guys like Joel (Ayayi) and Corey (Kispert) because they’re leaders and always trying to make sure everybody is engaged. It’s kind of a cool team vibe. There’s not a guy here that has a bigger ego than anyone else.”
Inglesby’s grandfather, now in his mid-70s, has shot his age in golf several times. Inglesby said Suter wore No. 23 at GU and jokes that he wore it before Michael Jordan. Inglesby wears No. 32 because it’s the “same numbers, just reversed.”
Graves, son of former Gonzaga women’s coach Kelly Graves, was a part-time starter at Lane Community College before joining the Zags last season. The 6-5 junior hit 4 of 7 3-pointers in 26 minutes.
“He can shoot it,” Lang said. “He hits floaters, step-backs. He can score.”
Brooks averaged 16 points and eight boards as a prep senior.
“Super athletic, super hard worker,” Lang said. “Strong. Our nickname for him is ‘The Rock.’ ”
Eagle, who battles Drew Timme, Oumar Ballo and Pavel Zakharov at practice, averaged 12.3 points and eight rebounds last year at Chaminade High.
“Back-you-down type of guy but can step out and hit a shot,” Inglesby said. “He’s already getting a lot better.”
Inglesby hopes that when the walk-ons improve it helps the starters and rotation players do the same.
“We’ve have had our moments,” he said. “We’ll surprise them a bit and it’ll be like 15-14 (in a scrimmage). We’re all good players. It’s pretty cool being in a program with 17 guys that can hoop.”
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