BROOKLYN, N.Y. – It’s pretty good being Thomas Walkup at the moment.
After the 6-foot-4 senior guard for Stephen F. Austin exploded for 33 points in Friday’s stunning 70-56 victory over No. 3 West Virginia, he became an internet sensation thanks to his impressive play on the court as well as his bushy red beard.
In fact, many people began to compare Walkup – who also sports an impressive pair of biceps and a slicked-to-one-side hairdo – to Nationals star Bryce Harper.
“Yeah, I’ve seen a couple of the memes,” Walkup said with a smile Saturday afternoon. “I think they’re pretty funny, pretty comical.
“Bryce Harper is a handsome guy, and a pretty successful guy, as well.”
There's something very Bryce Harper-ish about Thomas Walkup, including the fact he's got crazy game.
— Ian O'Connor (@Ian_OConnor) March 19, 2016
If Walkup can lead Stephen F. Austin to a second straight upset here Sunday, this time over No. 6 Notre Dame, he could potentially rival Harper for nationwide popularity by the time the Lumberjacks get to Philadelphia for next week’s East Region semifinal.
That’s not only because of his appearance, which also closely resembles the school’s Lumberjack mascot, Blake Loggins. It’s also not just because few people outside the state of Texas could tell you in what city the university is located. (For those who don’t know, it’s Nacogdoches.)
It’s also because of Walkup’s unique backstory, one that includes overcoming a string of potentially career-ending injuries in high school. He tore his left anterior cruciate ligament not once, but twice, as well as undergoing four surgeries stemming from a fractured fifth metatarsal in his right foot.
But Walkup has managed to turn himself into the star and unquestioned leader of the Lumberjacks (28-5), who have now pulled off an upset as a double-digit seed in the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years.
“He’s a hard worker who is like a coach on the court,” Walkup’s teammate and fellow senior Clide Geffrard said. “He deserves everything he gets.”
In addition to the attention Walkup has received from around the country, he’s also more than earned the respect of his opponents Sunday. The Mountaineers may admit they overlooked and underestimated Stephen F. Austin, but Notre Dame coach Mike Brey is doing everything he can to avoid that.
After saying this will be a second straight “ACC game” for the Fighting Irish, referring to Notre Dame’s win over Michigan Friday night, Brey said Saturday that his team hasn’t faced anyone over the past three years in the ACC with “a better or higher basketball IQ” than Walkup.
“I have the utmost respect for that, because that’s how we’ve kind of built our program, with basketball IQ guys.
“But his stuff is the kind you see with a crafty NBA veteran who has been in the league 10 or 12 years who just takes advantage of young guys. He’s involved with everything they do, and then leads … just a fabulous player, and he’s going to be hard to deal with.”