LOS ANGELES, Calif. — C.J. Baird was enamored with his surroundings.
The walk-on freshman continually scanned his locker up and down, jimmied his feet through his white Jordans and sent Snapchats of the covered nameplate beside his own name at the top — it belonged to Los Angeles Clippers forward Danilo Gallinari. The scene was an image custom-fit to a childhood dream.
While reporters swarmed the typical starters, Baird and his fellow walk-on freshmen teammates — Luke Wilson, Rico Ozuna-Harrison and Naji Ozeir — stood up from their quiet corner and surveyed the room to find the lockers of Lou Williams and Tobias Harris, two of their numerous NBA inspirations.
The wide-eyed walk-ons weren’t surrounded by cameras and voice recorders. The meager foot traffic by their lockers wasn’t a surprise, though — they aren’t going to see the floor for Thursday’s Sweet Sixteen matchup against Texas A&M. Even for their first road trip of the season last weekend in Wichita, the NCAA Tournament aura of InTrust Bank Arena wasn’t the most jaw-dropping spot to be — Ozeir justified it as having a role in “the bigger picture.”
But now in Los Angeles, practicing for a Tournament game under the storied Staples Center rafters, the newly-travelled walk-ons are understanding what it feels like to hit the road and get star treatment as members of one of the highest ranked teams in the country. You can’t blame them for having trouble taking it in stride.
“We’re all in awe and taking everything in and they’re just like ‘Yeah, this is what you do when you travel,’ ” Baird said. “It makes us feel more welcome and more accepted.”
Accepted is the operative word here. The freshmen admit not travelling with the team throughout the season can lead to an isolated nature. They didn’t even know until just after the Big Ten Tournament that they would get to come with the team for March Madness. Ozuna-Harrison even said some of his teammates had to calm his nerves before the first flight.
Their dedication, of course, doesn’t go unnoticed on the team. Coach John Beilein lightheartedly labels them and junior forward Brent Hibbitts the “Fab Five” that compose the scout team. With an upcoming date against a lengthy, athletic Aggies team that boasts three starters 6-foot-9 or taller, it is up to the scout team — none of which are taller than 6-foot-8 — to do what they’ve done all season and emulate their opponent.
“It’s definitely a bigger role, mimicking the other person,” Ozeir said. “Just trying to do what they do. They’re a much bigger team so the emphasis is guarding post players.”
Added Ozuna-Harrison: “You always know exactly what the other team does. Being a guard, and we’re not playing a team that has guards that take a whole lot of shots, we know to just give it to the post. Stuff like that, we know our personnel.”
With a difficult opponent for the most high-stakes challenge of the season, they do the dirty work no one else wants to do. It’s a position vital to the team’s success, and another reason to celebrate their presence at the tournament.
“Everybody was excited (they were coming),” said senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. “They put so much into it, as much as we do. They don’t get any credit for it and you don’t see what they do. They definitely deserve to come on the trips and definitely deserve everything that we get.”
Off the court, Michigan hardly gives itself time for other activities. In “the spirit of staying focused,” according to Baird, their time is spent playing Xbox or eating meals together. Time for yourself isn’t really an option on a trip like this, which is why at least two players volunteer every trip to bring a game console. The walk-ons were always familiar with this ritual — another small gesture that makes the trip that much more special for them.
Unlike Wilson and Ozeir, Baird and Ozuna-Harrison were added to the roster after the beginning of the University’s fall semester. But needless to say, it didn’t matter how long they had been with the team. Baird’s disbelief in getting this far echoed the group’s mentality.
“Never could’ve dreamed,” he said, “of anything this good.”