A few weeks ago, Luke Wilson almost punched Zavier Simpson.
The freshman scout-teamer thought Simpson was fouling him in practice, and as another rough play resulted in Wilson’s second-straight turnover, he shoved the starting point guard in the chest with both hands.
That’s how freshman guard CJ Baird, a walk-on like Wilson, described it in the Michigan men’s basketball team’s locker room in Wichita, Kan., the day before the Wolverines begin the NCAA Tournament against Montana. Simpson and Wilson crowded near Baird, the independent, third-party storyteller, making sure they weren’t portrayed unfairly.
From all accounts, the situation didn’t escalate after that. Teammates stepped in and cooler heads prevailed.
But the scene is emblematic of a larger theme. The scout team, walk-ons and all, has pride too.
Of course, that doesn’t normally manifest itself in physical altercations at practice. It shows itself in the job the scout team has to do: prepare the starters by any means necessary.
“(We’re) still trying to learn all the concepts of the entire system and then still trying to show you’re capable to push these guys, and you can fit in, and you can run scout, and you can prepare them,” said freshman walk-on guard Rico Ozuna-Harrison. “It’s definitely a challenge every day. … You don’t want to get punked.”
That pride comes from more than just individual basketball skill. Take sophomore guard Ibi Watson, for example.
Ask different Michigan players, and they’ll all tell you Watson can hold his own. But the part of a scout-teamer is that of a method actor. They meticulously study their role, learning the rhythm and movement of an opposing player, before emulating it for themselves. Then they move on to the next role.
So Watson isn’t just playing like Watson. He’s playing like a totally different person.
“Sometimes I get yelled at, because I might be playing a guy who is strictly a 3-point shooter, and I’m trying to create or do something too much,” Watson said. “But usually I try as hard as I can to play as similarly to that player as possible.”
Watson had an important job this week. His was the role of Montana guard Michael Oguine, a hyper-aggressive slasher who averages 15.8 points per game for the Grizzlies.
It’s a role that apparently allowed Watson to showcase his own ability, as multiple teammates pointed to him as somebody who shined on the second unit this week. Senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, who often guards Watson in practice, was less eager to admit his impressiveness.
“He doesn’t really score on me as much,” Abdur-Rahkman joked. “… It definitely helps, though, when you can have a player that caliber on the scout team. Sometimes they’re better than the people that we’re actually playing, and that definitely helps.”
The rest of the scout team had their own assignments. Somebody was Oregon transfer Ahmaad Rorie, and somebody was 6-foot-8 forward Jamar Akoh. When the buzzer sounds Thursday, barring an unexpected upset, those roles will be forgotten, and Watson, Baird, Wilson and Ozuna-Harrison will prepare to emulate either Houston or San Diego State.
It’s a thankless job. In fact, when coaches and players publicly credit the scout team, it’s brushed off as cliché. The NCAA Tournament is the only time all season they all get to just travel with the team.
But that’s okay with them. They find their fulfillment in other ways.
“I think one of the coolest things is realizing where you’re at, and how lucky you are to be in this position,” Baird said. “I think the scout team, as a whole, takes pride in it, and we go at them 100 percent every day.”
The scout team takes pride in their day-to-day effort. They take pride in acting out a role to the best of their ability.
“Whether we’re running (opponent’s) plays or emulating how a certain player works on the floor, it definitely gives our defense a better look and helps us prepare better for the game,” Baird said. “And it’s really cool, once you’ve emulated that player, and you see them out on the court next time you play, it’s cool to see, like, ‘Wow, that’s actually what they do. We actually worked on that.’ ”
It shows in the team’s preparation when the bright lights are on. And sometimes, it shows in practice, with a shove to the starting point guard.