Usually, walk-ons are relegated to garbage time. But not “The Doctor” and “Will the Thrill.”
Christian Beyer and Will Johnston are part of the playing rotation for undermanned Virginia Tech (10-6, 1-2 ACC), even though they are not on scholarship.
“It’s definitely a surprise — being a practice guy originally and then the next thing you know, your name’s being called for a game and you have to contribute,” Beyer said.
There are five walk-ons on the Hokies, but Beyer and Johnston are the only ones who are regulars this season.
“It’s awesome,” said Johnston, who played a total of eight minutes last season. “Last year I was in IHOP with [scholarship player] Joey van Zegeren and a family came up and were taking a picture with Joey and they didn’t even acknowledge me. And I was wearing my gear!
“But there was this time this year where me and Joey were walking out of a dining hall and [students] didn’t say anything to him and they were like, ‘You’re the shooter, Will Johnston, right?’ ”
Beyer is nicknamed “The Doctor,” but that is because of his career ambition, not because his moves remind anyone of Julius “Dr. J” Erving. He is averaging 2.4 points and 4.4 rebounds for the Hokies, who are down to seven healthy scholarship players.
The 6-foot-7 Beyer became part of the rotation after forward Marshall Wood was sidelined with a broken foot. Beyer has played at least 13 minutes in each of the past six games.
The sophomore forward led the Hokies in rebounds against BYU (11) and Boston College (eight) and shared the team lead in rebounds against Colorado State (nine). He scored nine points against BYU and six against Maryland and BC.
“In high school, … I was more of like a finesse player,” Beyer said. “Now I feel like I’m just like the junk guy — get rebounds, put [back] offensive rebounds and get points there.”
Beyer said he was recruited by ODAC members Washington and Lee, Emory & Henry, Randolph and Hampden-Sydney when he was at New Bern (N.C.) High School. He decided to attend Virginia Tech.
“I had grown up a Virginia Tech fan. I was just going to come here as a regular student. I knew I wasn’t good enough to play on the team — funny thing [now],” Beyer said with a grin.
Then-Hokies coach Seth Greenberg remembered Beyer from a Tech camp and offered him a walk-on spot. So Beyer worked out with the Hokies the summer before his freshman year. But he felt “burned out from basketball” and wanted to focus on academics, so he decided to be a nonplaying student.
He missed basketball last season.
“I just felt empty,” he said. “A part of my life was missing.”
Beyer got another shot at basketball when coach James Johnson, a former Greenberg assistant, offered him a walk-on spot last summer.
The 6-4 Johnston, a sophomore off-guard, was recruited by Hampden-Sydney, Randolph and Christopher Newport when he played for Midlothian High School. But he wanted to attend Virginia Tech, just like his parents had.
“I’ve been going to basketball games and football games at Tech since I was 4,” he said.
He was not initially offered a walk-on role as a freshman. But he continued lobbying the coaching staff, and after J.T. Thompson suffered a season-ending injury in a November 2011 practice, Johnston was given a roster spot.
He played in only three games last season.
“Last year I couldn’t play a lick of defense,” Johnston said.
But the Hokies began this season with only eight scholarship players, including just three guards. Johnston has been part of the rotation since the season opener. He has played at least 10 minutes in nine games.
Johnston, who was given his “Will the Thrill” nickname by Johnson, is 12-of-27 from 3-point territory. He had nine points and three 3-pointers against both VMI and UNC Greensboro.
“Johnson will pull me in his office and be like, ‘Don’t worry if you’re missing today in practice. When you get the ball [in games], you shoot,’ ” said Johnston, who is averaging 3 points and 10.5 minutes.
USA South school
This was supposed to be the first season in the USA South for the Piedmont men’s basketball team. The squad was supposed to play Ferrum on Jan. 6.
But on Dec. 28, Piedmont cancelled the rest of its season after an 0-7 start.
John Dzik, athletic director of the Demorest, Ga., school, said the squad began the season with 18 players but was down to seven players for its final game Dec. 17. Some players had been kicked off the team, while others quit and others became injured.
One player suffered a season-ending injury in the Dec. 17 game, and another was declared academically ineligible the following day. So Piedmont would have been down to just five players if it had continued with its season after the Christmas break, including two players who were playing hurt.
“In the best interests of those athletes that were left, this was the decision the college took,” Dzik said.
Piedmont does plan to play men’s basketball again next season.
North Carolina State began the season as the preseason favorite in the ACC and a top-10 team in the Associated Press Top 25 poll. But the Wolfpack went just 4-2 in November.
Since then, State has won 10 straight games. The No. 14 Wolfpack handed Duke its first loss of the season last weekend.
“There’s always a period at the beginning of the season where I believe your team is still learning how to play and how to play effectively,” coach Mark Gottfried said. “That takes a little while sometimes for that to come together. … Our biggest challenge this year was integrating some very talented young players into a veteran group.