Growing up in East Knoxville, five minutes from the University of Tennessee campus, Brandon Lopez was so eager to play basketball for the Vols that he joined the program as a walk-on two years ago.
After one and a half seasons spent squirming on the bench, his patience is being rewarded. With Trae Golden doubtful due to a hamstring pull and Jordan McRae coming off a poor outing (0 assists, 3 turnovers), Lopez projects to play significant minutes at the point-guard position when the Vols face Arkansas this afternoon in Fayetteville. His decision to attend Tennessee without a scholarship finally is paying dividends.
"My mother always says to keep your faith in God," Lopez said. "That's what I always did, so I guess you can say that."
Keeping his faith was one thing; keeping his enthusiasm was another. After averaging 25.6 points per game as a senior at Austin-East High School, Lopez had just 62 minutes and three points to show for his first 52 games on The Hill. He hadn't left the bench five games in a row when Golden strained his hamstring shortly before halftime of Tuesday night's contest against Vanderbilt. As Golden limped to the sidelines Lopez realized his role was about to change.
"Definitely," he said. "That's when our staff let me know to really be ready."
He was. Lopez performed so well in the second half against the Commodores (3 assists, 2 rebounds, 0 turnovers in 10 relief minutes) that he was on the floor for the final minutes of Tennessee's 58-57 victory.
"It felt good," he said. "I really try to work hard, get my team to win defensively and set up the team offensively ... do what I can do."
Undersized at 6-feet and 178 pounds, Lopez compensates with hustle, focus and toughness. These traits enabled him to play a key role in the defeat of Vanderbilt.
"I felt like I brought a lot of defensive intensity, a lot of energy — like I always do — and leadership," he said.
Vol head coach Cuonzo Martin wasn't surprised, noting: "The one thing about Lopez is, he is not fazed by the opponent; that does not bother him. He's from the east side, so he's not worried about any of that."
Although he grew up in an inner-city area of Knoxville, Lopez smiled when told of the coach's comment and replied: "I don't think it's that tough."
In addition to patience, Lopez shows plenty of resilience. For a guy who hadn't seen the floor for five games in a row, he exhibited very little rust versus Vandy.
"I'm not sure how many games that I haven't played in a stretch," he confided, "but it really doesn't affect me. I'm just happy I could come out there and help us win."
One benefit of playing Lopez at the point is that it frees the 6-foot-5 McRae to utilize his open-floor skills on the wing, his natural position.
"Brandon knows what's going on," Martin said. "The one thing he does is he pushes the ball.... I think with him on the floor it really helps Jordan get out and run to make plays in transition."
Obviously, Lopez' role is not for everybody. With the 13 scholarship players getting most of the playing time, he and fellow walk-on Rob Murphy surely struggle to maintain their focus.
"It's really not that hard," Lopez said. "Coach Martin always tells us, one through 15, to stay engaged."
Lopez, who compiled a 3.9 grade-point average at Austin-East, utilizes his quick mind on the basketball court. He knows the basic assignments for every position on the floor.
"I try to remember all the plays one through five, position-wise, because you'll never know when you'll be in transition or anything like that," he said. "I feel like that's my role as a point guard and a leader — to know everything that's going on out on the floor."
Although he's a walk-on, Lopez says there is no stigma attached. The scholarship players treat him as an equal.
"We don't really look at each other as scholarship guys and walk-ons," he said. "We're all a family, one through 15."
Asked if the scholarship players seem to respect him, Lopez nodded emphatically.
"Definitely," he said. "We all respect each other. We pick on the freshmen but it's all in fun because we all love each other."
Hamstring injuries can linger awhile, so Golden could be sidelined for several games. If so, Lopez insists he's ready to be more than a short-term fix.
"Yes," he said. "Wherever Coach needs me to help out, that's what I'll do."
GAME NOTES: The Vols are still looking for their first true road win of the season. They lost their first five road games.... Tennessee brings an 11-8 overall record and a 3-4 SEC mark into today's game. Arkansas stands 12-8 and 3-4 after losing 59-56 to Alabama Thursday night in Tuscaloosa.... Arkansas is 12-1 at home this season, with the only loss coming Nov. 30 against Syracuse by a 91-82 score.... Tennessee's 54-53 defeat of Bama last Saturday, coupled with a 58-57 defeat of Vanderbilt on Tuesday, gave the Vols back-to-back one-point wins for the first time since the 1962-63 season, when they nipped Denver 59-58 on Dec. 29, 1962, and Florida State 66-65 on Jan. 2, 1963.... The Razorbacks are led by B.J. Young, a 6-foot-3 sophomore who averages 16.4 points per game. The Hogs also get quality help from Marshawn Powell, a 6-foot-7 junior who averages 15.7 ppg and hits 43.9 percent from 3.... Arkansas's Barnhill Arena is named for John Barnhill, who was Tennessee's interim head football coach from 1941-45 while Bob Neyland was serving in World War II. Barnhill went 32-5-2, then took the reins at Arkansas when Neyland returned to the Vol helm in '46.... Today's game tips off at 3:05 Central (4:05 Eastern) with television coverage provided by ESPN2.