ANAHEIM, Calif. – Not all that long ago, Harrison Prieto was watching NCAA tournament games on his smartphone, making sure to hide the device under his desk during his classes at St. Paul’s School in Louisiana.
Prieto was a promising prep basketball player back then, and, as he sneaked peeks at the Madness between class lectures, he had the same thought that most young players do:
“That would be cool.”
Fast-forward a few years, and what was once a daydream became a full reality for Prieto, now a walk-on for the Florida State men’s basketball team.
With 1:35 to go in FSU’s 90-62 rout of Murray State in the second round of the NCAA tournament, FSU coach Leonard Hamilton emptied his bench, calling on the likes of walk-ons Prieto, Will Miles, Travis Light and Justin Lindner, as well as reserve Wyatt Wilkes, to close it out and send the Seminoles to the Sweet 16.
For that group of walk-ons, nicknamed “The Green Team Vipers,” as a nod to their green practice jerseys, it was the culmination of a full year’s worth of poundings in practice, hours of film study and the occasional basketball flying at their heads.
Of the four walk-ons, only Prieto scored against Murray State (although not for lack of effort; the group put up five shots in a little more than 60 seconds), but that didn’t matter much.
“You still go in,” Prieto said. “You’re in the box score, forever. No one can take that away from you. It’s really cool, and it makes a lot of the work we do worth it. It’s very gratifying.”
‘An unbelievable culture’
As is the case at most schools, Florida State’s walk-ons don’t get the same notoriety as the scholarship counterparts.
In their duties with the “scout team,” FSU’s walk-ons primarily serve to get the team ready to face their next opponent.
That means running the same scenarios in practice, over and over, sometimes to the point of exhaustion. It means learning an opponent’s playbook and tendencies inside and out, to replicate what’s coming in the game.
And it means knowing that, despite all their work throughout the week, they’ll probably spend game days on the bench.
“We spend so much time going over other teams’ plays, we almost know other teams’ plays better than our own,” said Will Miles, a walk-on redshirt sophomore whose father Bobby (1982-84), grandfather Robert (1956-57) and uncle (1989-90) Blake all played basketball at FSU.
“We’ve seen pretty much every offense and defense that there is.”
A walk-on’s job is not glamorous.
But it’s one that everyone inside the program, from coach Leonard Hamilton on down, believes has played a crucial part in the Seminoles’ success over the last few years.
On the eve of their second Sweet 16 appearance in as many years – fourth-seeded FSU will meet No. 1 Gonzaga Thursday in the NCAA west region semifinal – the Seminoles are currently in the midst of the best three-year run in school history.
Since the start of the 2016-17 campaign, FSU has won 78 games, made three straight NCAA tournaments and reached the 2018 Elite Eight.
During that span, the Seminoles have taken down the likes of Duke, North Carolina, Virginia and Gonzaga.
Miles, Prieto, Lindner and Light have been along for every step of that ride.
“I don’t think anybody overlooks us,” Prieto said. “What we do is important, and they recognize that.”
“It’s an unbelievable culture we’ve built,” added Miles. “I’m not sure any other team in the country does this with as many players as we have, 18 strong. It’s fun.”
And, make no mistake, for that group of scout-teamers to truly be effective at their jobs, they have to provide the toughest, most competitive practices possible.
If that means getting under the skin of the likes of Terance Mann or Trent Forrest, then that’s fine.
“We take pride in what we do,” Prieto said. “When we’re in there, we try to get as many stops as we can playing defense. Or we’re trying to score every time we get the ball. It’s not like we’re in there just patty-caking it around and dummy-running offense.”
“There’s a lot of respect, but don’t get it wrong – they still talk a lot of trash,” Miles added with a laugh. “I mean we talk a lot of trash too. If we score and we’re walking back to the huddle, we can expect a ball flying at us. But it’s fun.”
Meet the Vipers
It started as a joke.
To better differentiate themselves during practice, Florida State’s scout team wears green jerseys – a fine contrast from the usual garnet and gold.
For a while, they were just “The Green Team” – catchy enough, if not particularly memorable.
But last year, “The Green Team” was joined by Anthony Polite and RaiQuan Gray, a pair of redshirting scholarship freshmen.
Polite and Gray had all the same responsibilities as the rest of the scout-teamers, but they also brought a bit of flair to group as well.
Before teaming up at Florida State, Polite and Gray first played together on an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) team nicknamed “The Vipers.”
Then, when they got to FSU and donned those green jerseys together, the name seemed all the more appropriate.
“It was kind of a joke – ‘The Green Team Vipers,’” Miles said.
But the name stuck, and what started as a joke became something much more meaningful.
“It kind of gives us more of an identity,” Prieto said.
“Every team has a scout team, every team has walk-ons. But ours is a unique situation where the walk-ons are the whole scout team. And we’re good at it. And we take pride in it.”
And the rest of the team took pride in them.
So much so that, one day before practice, FSU’s equipment crew and marketing staff teamed up to surprise ‘The Green Team Vipers’ with brand new, green jerseys.
Complete with their own custom logo:
“That was a surprise,” Miles said. “It was cool. It was sweet. I was shocked.”
“We had the name and, alright, now let’s put something to it,” Prieto said. “Now we’ve got the jerseys.”
‘All you need to know’
Although rare, the Vipers have made a handful of appearances throughout the 2018-19 season – always at the end of lopsided FSU victories.
Prieto scored his first career points with a dunk at Syracuse last month, and Miles and Lindner all found the scoresheet from the free-throw line against ACC opponents.
So it’s hardly unheard of to see them on the floor.
Still, no one on Florida State’s bench predicted another opportunity to arise during the NCAA tournament.
Despite its status as a No. 12-seed, Murray State had rolled over Marquette in the first round, had won 12 straight games and boasted one of the top pro prospects in the country in guard Ja Morant.
A close game seemed certain, and a handful of college basketball pundits put the Seminoles on “upset alert” before the game.
Turned out to be a false alarm.
Because after falling behind early, the Seminoles surged past the Racers and just kept on going. They led by 16 points at halftime, ballooned that advantage to 31 points in the second half and were never seriously threatened.
Which paved the way for Prieto and his cohorts to fulfill a dream that once seemed confined to a smartphone hidden a school desk.
“We were up 30,” Prieto said. “But it doesn’t matter.”
No, it didn’t.
Most might expect them to dribble around, make a few passes and more or less take it easy until the final whistle.
Murray State, however, still wanted to play defense.
Which was welcome news to the Vipers.
They checked in with about 90 seconds to play and combined for two points, four rebounds and an assist.
All the while, their teammates held their breath for every shot.
When Miles dished to Prieto for a layup at the basket, every single Seminole on the bench jumped out of his seat.
“All the proof you need for the culture we have on this team,” Prieto said, “is if you look at the starters and the people that play significant minutes, look at their reactions when we go in and we’re scoring and we’re doing something good.
“I think that’s all you need to know.”
Added Mann: “It’s cool to see how hard they work. Day in and day out, they don’t get the type of shine we get. So to watch them go in there and do what they do, and work as hard as they do, is definitely big for us.”
‘Rooted in respect’
Whether the Vipers will log any more action this season remains to be seen.
The games only get more difficult, and the Seminoles will face a tough test in top-seeded Gonzaga, which has run up a 32-3 record, spent three weeks atop the Associated Press Top 25 and breezed through the first weekend of the tournament.
But even if they don’t make it into the box score, “The Green Vipers” are sure to have their fingerprints all over the game.
That process started during an early-morning practice in Tallahassee on Tuesday, it continued with film study on FSU’s cross-country flight to California, and it will be intertwined with the Seminoles’ preparations right up until tip-off on Thursday.
It isn’t always glamorous. But “The Green Team Vipers” wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We all know our job as a whole is to make the team better,” Miles said. “It’s 18 brothers, and it’s definitely rooted in respect.”