BOSTON (AP) — “Martians!” Boston College coach Jim Christian will shout, summoning his scout team to the court. And in they run from the sideline, ready for whatever, wearing the green practice jerseys that gave them their nickname.
“That’s like our calling card,” said forward Will Jackowitz, one of five BC walk-ons who had no expectations of playing time this season before the pandemic whittled the Eagles roster to a nub.
With COVID-19 protocols forcing unprecedented adjustments for NCAA basketball programs, several schools have turned to non-scholarship walk-ons to fill out their benches. Like BC, Iowa State and New Mexico are among the teams that have relied on their scout teams, who are usually limited to playing the part of an upcoming opponent in practice to help the starters prepare.
At BC, they are known as the Martians.
And, frankly, the thought of them seeing significant playing time for the Eagles this season was kind of out of this world.
“If tomorrow I wake up with Michael Jordan-level skill, Coach better put me on the court,” said sophomore Jonathan Noel, who has totaled one rebound and one assist in 10 minutes over the past two seasons. “But until then, I’m trying to get better, with the goal of winning.”
Coming off a 21-day pause that forced BC to postpone five games, the Eagles were prepared to play then-No. 20 Florida State on Feb. 2 with just four scholarship players available. Sophomore forward Andrew Kenny was in line for his first career start.
“You want to reward these kids for all their effort,” Christian said as he prepared for the game. “It’s a unique situation that we’ve just got to muddle through and do the best we can.”
But the game was called off about 24 hours before tipoff — because of a positive test on the Seminoles. “It was a little ironic,” Kenny said.
After their best chance for significant playing time disappeared, four of the Martians gathered in Jackowitz and Sam Holtze’s dorm room to commiserate.
“I just kind of remember how bummed we were,” Holtze said. “We were just talking about what could have been, I guess.”
By Saturday’s game against North Carolina State, the Eagles had six regulars available. All five Martians got into the game, an 81-65 loss, with Kenny playing 18 minutes and hitting a pair of late 3-pointers for a career-high six points and matching his best with four rebounds.
Jackowitz, a senior who had never played more than two minutes in a game before, played four against the Wolfpack, grabbing one rebound and a steal. Holtze had a steal and an assist in a career-high three minutes. Noel played five minutes — doubling his career total. Quinn Pemberton, a freshman, made his debut with six minutes and a missed 3-pointer.
“It was really fun having the opportunity against N.C. State for all of us to get some minutes,” Holtze said. “I think that’s what it’s all about: We worked so hard in practice. It was just so great to have that, I guess, kind of reward of actually going into the game and trying to make a difference.”
Christian used just seven players in Wednesday night’s 69-65 loss to Wake Forest — the six scholarship players he had available, plus Kenny, who played power forward because the Eagles (3-12, 1-8 Atlantic Coast Conference) were short on big men.
Told the coach praised him for uncomplainingly accepting an unfamiliar role, Kenny laughed.
“Never, any time. It doesn’t matter, any spot, I would not complain,” he said. “I’d be happy to be out there, happy to be able to compete.”
A 6-foot-6 sophomore from the Seattle area, Kenny learned about life as a walk-on from his father, Chris, who played most of his 26 career minutes for the 1990-91 UCLA team that finished No. 16 in The Associated Press poll.
“He was the equivalent of what we are,” Andrew Kenny said. “I kind of grew up with that experience, him telling me what that was like. And that was pretty appealing to me, just going to a school where, like if I broke my leg and didn’t play basketball, I’d still be happy. So BC kind of checked off a lot of boxes for me.”
Like Kenny, the other Martians went through the recruiting process with smaller, Division III schools where they might have had a chance at regular playing time. Ultimately, they all picked Boston College, where not even a spot on the roster was guaranteed.
“It was the only college I was excited to get into,” said Jackowitz, who grew up in Wellesley, one town over from campus, as the son of two BC graduates. “I saw I got the email and I had to pull over. I called my parents and they left this big dinner they were at. It just felt right.”
Since the pandemic, Kenny said, he’s only grown more confident that he made the right choice. Some schools have canceled their seasons — and closed their gyms — in response to the outbreak.
“Every time I’m able to go out and practice, go to the gym on my own, I’m thankful,” he said. “The fact that we get to play games and travel around the ACC, it’s pretty cool.
“So it definitely reinforces my decision,” he said, “because it could be a lot worse.”
Boston College has lost seven of eight games since Christmas, with road trips to Syracuse and Georgia Tech coming up in the next week. Christian grew philosophical when asked how close the team was to returning to full strength.
“What is full strength?” he said.
The most he could commit to: “We’re getting closer.”
And that’s fine with the Martians, who are ready to put on their green jerseys and return to their usual role.
“We still want to be a part of the team because ultimately we love basketball,” Holtze said. “Whether I’m the No. 1 guy or the 15th guy, I just love playing basketball. And I think that goes for all these guys here.”