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October 4, 2013

Arizona walk-ons wear several hats on hardwood

There are bench roles on college basketball teams and then there are walk-on roles. The Rudys of the hardwood are much less prevalent compared to college football.

At Arizona, the walk-ons accept the fact that they will see more of the Richard Jefferson Gymnasium practice floor than the McKale Center stage. But, Wildcats head coach Sean Miller said they "are treated just like a scholarship player."

"Everybody in our program is important," Miller said.

"Believe me when I tell you: they earn it. They work hard every day to make our practice excellent, or better than it would be if they weren't here."

That work translates into playing time in blowouts, and nothing more. The Oct. 12 Red-Blue intrasquad scrimmage may be the most minutes any of them receive. Yet, few heard louder cheers from the home crowd than Max Wiepking, the senior leader of last season's bench mob.

This season, there is a blend of youth and inexperienced juniors who have not been in Tucson long. But there are a pair of players who know what success looks like.

Sophomore Jacob Hazzard is the grandson of former UCLA great Walt Hazzard. He is a product of Los Angeles (Calif.) Loyola, the same high school as freshman Trey Mason - the son of Grammy Award-winning music producer Harvey Mason Jr., a member of Arizona's first-ever Final Four team in 1988.

Hazzard said himself and junior forward Drew Mellon have taken over Wiepking's mantle. Hazzard agreed that it takes a special mindset to accept an ultimate team-first role.

"It can be tough. No one really sees what you're doing," said Hazzard, who logged just 11 minutes over six of the team's 35 games last season. "You have to work hard and you don't really get much credit for it.

"You get used to it and you know you're doing it for the team, and you just have to know that everything you do is helping the team win. We're all trying to win here so that's the main goal."

Mason said it is preparation that Miller emphasizes to the team, and the five walk-ons on this season's roster - which includes 6-7 freshman Eric Conklin of Scottsdale (Ariz.) Chaparral - are accountable for staying on task and knowing the plays just like everyone else.

With interest from programs such as Portland State and Santa Clara, the 6-2 guard decided that the life-long UA ties were tough to ignore.

"Making the decision was really exciting for me and my family," said Mason, whose mother, Jeannine, also competed at Arizona as a volleyball player.

The family ties do not stop at the Masons, however, as Nick Johnson's brother, Chris, was added to the roster this offseason.

Chris Johnson, a junior whose road traveled took him from South Kent (Conn.) Prep to Grand Canyon University to Cal State San Bernardino, said it was little brother who came up with the idea following the 2012-13 season. Chris said their mother, Michelle Mayland, lives just an hour away and now has one less travel plan to make.

"I definitely jumped on it," Chris said.

More than perhaps any other teammate, Nick said the bond as brothers allows Chris the freedom to be brutally honest and provide emotional support when he needs it most.

"He's my big brother so he can tell me to be quiet any time," Nick said. "I may be the leader on the team but he's ultimately big brother."

Even if he is a walk-on.

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Tracy McDannaldTracy McDannald
GOAZCATS.com Senior Editor

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