There is no better story in all of sports than that of the underdog who, through determination alone, finds triumph. In collegiate athletics, the quintessential underdog story has to be that of the player who begins his career as a walk-on and closes it out as a contributor or even a leader... and occasionally a star.
Razorbacks fans are familiar with the plot. One of Arkansas' greatest linemen ever, Brandon Burlsworth, began his career as a walk-on. New head football Coach Bret Bielema was once a freshman walk-on for Hayden Fry at Iowa before earning a scholarship, a starting job, and ultimately a captain's position as a senior for the Hawkeyes.
The latest Razorback that seems destined to live out this story line is Kikko Haydar, a junior guard on the basketball team. At 5'10", he doesn't really look like a college basketball player. He isn't long like Mardracus Wade or fast like B.J. Young and he can't jump like Michael Qualls. What he is, though, is tenacious. And fearless. And clutch.
He didn't fill up the box score in Thursday night's well-earned victory for the Hogs over Robert Morris. But you'd be hard pressed to point to a single instance in his 13 minutes of play where his presence on the court was a detriment to his team. I'm not sure that could be said for any other member of the entire team with regard to Thursday's game.
He's efficient. He took two field goal attempts, and made both of them. One was a three-pointer which came at a critical juncture of the second half.
He plays tremendous defense, especially for a player of his height. His understanding of basketball allows him to anticipate where the ball is going before other players. Against Robert Morris, this led to both a steal and a taken charge on separate occasions. As an on-ball defender, Haydar is no liability, either.
Finally, he is rock-solid with the basketball, or at least he has been in the times that I have watched him this season. He is secure as a ballhandler and doesn't dribble into bad situations, and he rarely makes ill-advised passes in the course of trying to do too much. Zero turnovers against the Colonials Thursday night.
Within the span of two weeks, Haydar has gone from being a non-factor on this team into a key component. In most of the final few minutes of Thursday evening's game, the walk-on found himself on the court with the B.J. Young, Hunter Mickelson, Marshawn Powell, and Fred Gulley, while starters Ky Madden and Mardracus Wade watched from the bench. Mike Anderson didn't have Haydar out there as a lesson to anybody else on the team. Haydar played during that crucial stretch because he's turned himself into a key component of this team. Someone to turn to for solid play when solid play is needed most.
It's a great story, to be sure. More than that, though, it may prove to be the spark this team needs to find success in conference play. He's hoping Haydar can continue his rise up the ranks of Razorback lore long into 2013.
Trent Wooldridge will be that guy with enough bourbon. He loves the S-E-C chant and honks because he hates Texas. He puts honey on his pizza, demands aisle seats, and sees quitting golf as more of a hobby than actually playing golf. Follow @twooldridge and track his quest to transform his two-year-old into a southpaw ace in the bigs.