Craig Cusick has taken an unorthodox route to being a key guard on the BYU Cougars men’s basketball team. Two years ago, he was playing for LDS Community College in Salt Lake City when he broke his ankle at the end of the season. After that school year, he was admitted into BYU, where he became an accounting major. However, his love for basketball and the determination to play Division I basketball wouldn’t die.
He joined many other students at tryouts at the Marriott Center, running through drills and practices the coaches had planned out over three days. The coaches were impressed with Cusick’s performance and put him on the practice squad where he would run through practice drills through the entirety of the 2010-2011 season, helping the senior backcourt of Jimmer Fredette and Jackson Emery prepare for the games though he would not dress or participate in any of them.
While many of the walk-ons are not usually invited back after one year, head coach Dave Rose gave Cusick a shot to make the team. The junior guard did not disappoint, averaging 16.8 minutes in all 35 games and starting 3. He averaged 3.1 points and 2.1 assists and shot a team-best 37.9 percent from beyond the arc.
“I’m going to be honest, it’s different,” Cusick said. “If you’re recruited as a scholarship player, there’s a sense that you’ve already proven yourself in high school or wherever you were, that you deserve to be here. Being a walk-on, it takes a little bit longer to gain that trust, because you’re just a random guy on the street that shows up for tryouts. It takes hard work but I’ve been very fortunate.”
Cusick’s experience is unique to BYU basketball, as most walk-ons will not get the opportunity to play very much in games, but his determination to succeed has impressed the coaches.
“Very few have the opportunity that Craig experienced,” head coach Dave Rose said. “It’s extremely unique because, eligibility wise, it left an opening for another guy. Craig did a great job as a practice player his first year here, and he’s a guy that has an unbelievable work ethic and took advantage of a unique situation and actually got a chance to play in games. He then took advantage of that opportunity and performed well in games. You have to go back quite a ways to find a walk-on who’s had as much an impact in games as Craig has had this year.”
Cusick is not alone as a walk-on for the team. Junior guard Brock Zylstra also walked on a couple years ago, however his situation was a little bit different. He was a “preferred walk-on,” meaning the coaches specifically invited him to walk-on, and he is now a scholarship player, having started 28 games this year.
“It’s tough to go the hard way,” Zylstra said. “We really have to remember that most of us were the best players on our high school teams. We have confidence in our abilities and know that we can play. But it’s still hard.”
The walk-on process is surprisingly simple. The only requirements, besides showing obvious talent, are being a full-time student at BYU in good academic standing and being able to clear up the schedule to practice every day for three or four hours. It depends on the season and the team’s needs as to how many players they take.
“Every year is different,” BYU assistant coach Tim LaComb said. “We have different needs in terms of positions or sheer numbers. There’s been years where we’ve taken up to three guys, and there’s been years where we haven’t taken any. We put the guys through different drills and then watch for different things that we need.
The prospect of having a walk-on taking minutes, and perhaps even a starting position from a scholarship player, may have the potential to create a certain amount of animosity for the player sitting on the bench.
“No one likes taking a back seat,” Zylstra said. “We’re all competitors, and we all want to play, but at some point you have to sit back and see what they’re bringing to the success of the team.”
For Cusick, Zylstra and BYU, winning games as a team comes before any type of individual recognition or awards.
“We’re just there as a team to play together,” Cusick said. “Each of us can put in our own pieces, and I think we need every single one of the players there. I don’t look at it like I’m taking this guy’s minutes or that guy’s. It’s just doing whatever I need to do to help the team win.”
The Cougar coaches are equally impressed with players’ focus on numbers in the win column rather than focusing on the individual accolades or goals they want to accomplish.
“Be really competitive,” LaComb said in advice to anyone thinking about walking on. “Work really hard. Make everything you do about winning. Check your personal agendas at the door. If you put everything into the pot and make everything about winning, you’ll be really successful in that role.”
As the Cougars look at this last season, they see a lot of success amid enormous changes. They underwent a conference change, playing against new teams in arenas they’ve never played at before. It was also the first year without a superstar like Jimmer captaining the team. However, the Cougars still managed to win at least 25 games for the seventh consecutive year, and winning an NCAA Tournament game for the third consecutive year.
“Every season stands on its own,” LaComb said. “But from the guys we lost last year, and having guys in new roles that they’ve never played before, we were really pleased that these guys found a way to win 26 games and get back to the tournament and win a game there. They fought from the very beginning to the very end.”
Remembering his unconventional journey to being a key player in the Cougar backcourt, Cusick said he is filled with gratitude and joy at being given a chance to prove himself and looks at the upcoming season with excitement.
“I’m grateful for this chance I’ve been given, to my coaches for giving me a chance,” Cusick said. “For the players to accept me. It says a lot about the institution we have here. I honestly think I have the best teammates in the world. It’s the only reason I’ve been given this opportunity. It’s a team game and nothing comes individually. I haven’t done anything special, but the team and coaches have done special things this year, and I’ve been fortunate to be able to play. I’m really excited and we look forward to a really successful year next season.”