HOUSTON — Fifty strong, the swarm of media surged into the locker room and past the unlikeliest player on the unlikeliest team at the Final Four.
David Hinton never received a Division I-A scholarship offer. But he shrugged off possibilities at lower-division schools and swallowed the $21,356 annual out of state tuition to walk on at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Since VCU seized the college basketball world’s attention by winning five straight games in the NCAA Tournament, Hinton recalls two interviews. And the cellular phone salesman in Richmond, Va., last week who remembered he played basketball. But Hinton, the redshirt sophomore, is accustomed to making his contributions where few notice.
“He’s like a robot,” VCU assistant Will Wade said. “You wind him up and put him out there. You know exactly what he’s going to do and where he’s going to go. … He knows exactly where he’s supposed to go. He’s never out of position.”
Games, where Hinton played 67 minutes and scored 12 points this season, aren’t what Wade was referring to. During practice, Hinton transforms into Butler’s Matt Howard. Or the Morris twins from Kansas. Yes, both Marcus and Markieff. Or Purdue’s JaJuan Johnson.
The responsibility to imitate the opponent’s best big man for VCU’s scout team falls to the 6-foot-9 Hinton. He studies film to pick up their nuances. Becoming Howard, Butler’s shaggy-haired inside-out star, is particularly gratifying because Hinton gets to shoot 3-pointers. Normally, the coaches shoo him away from the arc.
“You’ve always got to do the little things right,” Hinton said. “It might be hard thinking you should be playing and you’re not. But you’ve got to put the team first. Things will work out.”
Only 5-foot-10 when he started high school in Winston-Salem, N.C., Hinton’s growth spurt came late. That deadened any upper-division scholarship offers. Not until Hinton and his father, David Sr., brought a highlight DVD to former VCU coach Anthony Grant did an offer to walk on emerge.
Keeping in character with his team, Hinton is a long shot. VCU was given a 1.2 percent chance of reaching the Sweet 16 and a 0.0005 percent chance of winning the tournament, according to statistics whiz Ken Pomeroy.
That’s made the experience doubly enjoyable for Hinton, even though he hasn’t logged an official minute in the tournament.
There was the police escort in Richmond when VCU bused to the airport Wednesday. Streets were shut down, as 12 motorcycles and eight patrol cars accompanied the team.
Or watching VCU highlights when the team bus rolled up to Reliant Stadium, then looking up to see the university’s logo hanging on a giant banner next to perennial powers Kentucky and UConn.
“This still hasn’t hit me, all that’s going on,” Hinton said. “I still feel like I’m in the Sweet 16. It’s crazy, crazy.”
But Hinton has plenty to occupy him, other than Saturday’s national semifinal against Butler. Books accompanied basketballs to the Final Four for the homeland security major. One day Hinton wants to work for the FBI or Secret Service. For now, there’s reading about the CIA and courts for his intelligence class and playing with numbers a risk management course.
Hinton’s risk management professor kept calculating the chances of VCU winning each round of the tournament. The numbers never looked good. Hinton knows they don’t matter, for the team or for the man sitting on the end of the bench.
“You’ve always got to be ready,” said Hinton, who appreciates the broader view of the game the bench provides. “It’s easy to clown around or look over there and laugh and joke, but you’ve got to have that edge because you never know what will happen. When it happened, it’ll be a split second.”
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