Thomas Walkup's zero stands for nothing he can’t do
The Stephen F. Austin swingman normally fills all the columns in the box score, normally does just about everything.
Same for his team, which this year is making its third straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament. The Lumberjacks (28-5) are winners of 21 consecutive games after stunning No. 3 seed West Virginia 70-56 Friday night.
Walkup’s dazzling performance on national television included 33 points, hitting 19 of 20 free throws and two 3-pointers and grabbing nine rebounds.
He helped 14th-seeded SFA force 22 turnovers and advance to a second-round game on Sunday at 2:40 p.m. ET against No. 6 seed Notre Dame in the East Regional.
Walkup repeated as conference Player of the Year, and leads his team in scoring (17.5), rebounding (6.8), assists (4.5) and steals (2.1). The 6-5 senior is atop the Southland in field-goal percentage (.598), second in steals and among the top five in the other three categories.
About the only thing he doesn’t do is shoot 3-pointers. He has attempted just 34 this season, 126 in 133 career games, making him something of an anomaly in this analytics-obsessed age.
There are other guys on the team capable of doing that, he said. And really, his plate is full enough, his multitasking such that he seems worthy of a wee-hours infomercial: He slices and dices! There’s nothing he can’t do!
Yet he wants to do even more.
Ask him if this has been a special season, and his answer is succinct: “Not yet.”
Ask him why, and he says, “It’s your senior year. Of course we wanted to win the conference, win the conference tournament, all that stuff. But I think to make it a truly special year we have to get in there (in NCAAs) and win a couple games.”
The ’Jacks, who as a 12-seed last year extended No. 5 Utah before losing their opener, did knock off VCU in a similar pairing the year before, 77-75 in overtime.
Again — not enough.
“We want to be playing in that second weekend of the tournament,” Walkup said. “I think that’s what will really make this an incredible year.”
Which is not to diminish all that has occurred to date. He recorded Stephen F. Austin’s first triple-double in 43 years when he put up 12 points, a career-high 15 rebounds and 10 assists against Incarnate Word on Feb. 29, and two games later poured in a career-best 38 points at Sam Houston State.
The triple-double “sort of just happened,” he said; he had a double-double at halftime, and an assistant coach sidled up to him and said he might want to spread the ball around even more than usual in the second half. So Walkup did.
The big scoring night was something else again, something he obviously relishes.
“That was the last game in our conference, against our rival, at their place,” he said. “I think that night was special because it capped off our 18-0 season. Obviously beating your rival on their homecourt is something that we take great pleasure in.”
Just as enjoyable, in a larger sense, is the fact that he is part of an ensemble cast. The Lumberjacks feature two other double-figure scorers in guard Demetrious Floyd (13.8) and forward Clide Geffrard Jr. (13.4), both seniors, and as a team average 19 assists a game, second-most in the country.
And they are obviously on a roll. Their last loss came on Dec. 29 at UAB.
“As the year has gone on,” Walkup said, “we’ve really started to figure each other out as a team.”
While all this has been going on, he has been studying toward a second undergraduate degree, in marketing. He stands to earn that in May, having been presented a management degree in December 2014.
“I’m trying to use basketball as best I can,” he said.
His uniform number actually represents wishful thinking. A native of Pasadena, Texas, he twice tore his left ACL early in his high school career, then was forced to redshirt his first year of college (2011-12), after breaking his right foot.
So the digit’s meaning is quite simple, he said: “Zero injuries. … When I came back (from the foot problems), it was all about staying healthy.”
He has managed to do that. In 2013-14 he averaged 13.1 points for a 32-3 team, and last year he bumped that to 15.6. That was, as always, one of the many categories in which he paced the Lumberjacks, who finished 29-5.
This year he has done even more.
Still, it’s not enough. Not yet.