March 19, 2016
NEW YORK (AP) – Notre Dame forward Bonzie Colson was in the locker room, still digesting a first-round victory against Michigan when he got the inevitable question: What do you know about your next opponent?
For Colson and the Fighting Irish, that meant No. 14 seed Stephen F. Austin, which beat No. 3 seed West Virginia on Friday night in the NCAA Tournament. The Lumberjacks take a 21-game winning streak, longest in the nation, into their East Region matchup Sunday with sixth-seeded Notre Dame at Barclays Center.
Colson had caught a few minutes of the Southland Conference champions and, of course, one guy stood out.
“Their point guard, Walkup, I don’t know what his name is. He can score,” Colson said.
Right guy, wrong position, but a totally understandable mistake.
The 6-foot-4 Walkup, a two-time conference player of the year, does everything for the Lumberjacks.
Walkup was a matchup nightmare for West Virginia, scoring 25 of his 33 points in the second half by beating the big men off the dribble and overpowering smaller players. Coach Brad Underwood says Stephen F. Austin plays “position-less basketball” and Walkup is the focal point.
“He’s one of the most resourceful, efficient players I’ve ever coached,” Underwood said. “Certain nights, he has 10 points, 15 rebounds. He’s our school’s all-time leading rebounder. He led us in assists. He led us in steals. His best position is the point because he’s such a good passer. His versatility is a big part of our success.”
Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said in three years playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Irish have not faced a player with a better basketball IQ than Walkup.
“His stuff is the kind you see with a crafty NBA veteran who’s been in the league 10 or 12 years, who just takes advantage of young guys,” Brey said.
At Deer Park High School in Pasadena, Texas, near Houston, Walkup had one setback after another. He tore the ACL in his left knee as a freshman and then tore it again.
He started to take off as a junior. He played point guard in high school, but for an AAU team that had Cameron Ridley, now at Texas; Ryan Manuel, who played for SMU; and SFA teammate Trey Pinkney, he played power forward.
Walkup was having a big senior year when he broke his right foot halfway through the season. The injury took so long to heal he redshirted as a freshman at SFA.
Ask Thomas’ father, Raymond, about his son’s recruitment and Dad lets out a little laugh.
“I’m sure scouts looked at him and said, ‘Well, he’s a 6-4 white guy and he can’t shoot and he plays the plays the four. And we don’t need that,” said Raymond Walkup, who took a few minutes to do a phone interview while visiting the Freedom Tower with his wife, Lisa, on Saturday.
Thomas Walkup would have ended up at Houston Baptist if not for his former AAU coach, Jim Thrasher, giving previous Stephen F. Austin coach Danny Kaspar the hard sell.
Walkup is the third of four brothers, including former Texas A&M player Nathan. Thomas Walkup said even with all the injuries, playing in the NCAA Tournament like his brother was always the goal.
“It was difficult there for a little bit of time, but I knew this is all I ever wanted to do,” Thomas said.
Now he’s become the bearded face of a first weekend of the NCAA Tournament that has been highlighted by upsets. The Lumberjacks are one of a record 10 double-digit seeds to win first-round games.
Raymond Walkup said he’s OK with Thomas’ beard, which has not been shaved since Nov. 1.
“Mom cares more about the haircut and the beard than I do,” Dad said.
Some things to watch when Stephen F. Austin and Notre Dame play for a spot in the Sweet 16 in Philadelphia.
Brey said the Irish like to play a similar style to SFA in that they have versatile players. It helped them beat Michigan 70-63 on Friday night.
“We have the ability to switch a lot of stuff. We switched a lot of things last night in the second half that helped us really be good defensively to win the game,” Brey said. “I think you have to do that against this group.”
In 16 seasons under Brey, the Fighting Irish have played in the NCAA Tournament 10 times, but gotten as far as the round of 16 only twice. But last year, Notre Dame advanced all the way to the Elite Eight before suffering a two-point loss to then-unbeaten Kentucky.
LITTLE BIG MAN
Walkup gets the accolades but 5-9 point guard Pinkney is equally as important to the Lumberjacks for his pesky pressure defense and ball-handling. In 35 minutes against West Virginia’s press, he had zero turnovers.