Robert Morris’ junior guards Arvanitis and O’Grady embracing roles as walk-ons at Division I level

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Cyril Arvanitis (left) and Tanner O'Grady (right) celebrate a three-pointer during an early season game during their freshman season with Robert Morris. (Photo: Ethan Morrison)

By Ethan Morrison

Many athletes across the country aspire to playing basketball at the next level. However, only a select few have the chance to be a part of a Division I program and play on a scholarship. 

 For a select few, they will receive an opportunity to have the experience of being on a Division I team as a walk-on and that is something that Robert Morris junior walk-on guards Tanner O’Grady and Cyril Arvanitis will not ever take for granted. 

“Not a lot of people have the opportunity to walk on to a Division I program so if you have the opportunity you should take it,” Arvanitis said. “Walking on at Robert Morris, it has been an amazing two years, I have gotten a lot better as a player and made a lot of great relationships that will last a lifetime.”   

The pair have been inseparable ever since they walked onto the Robert Morris campus back in the summer of 2022 for the first workouts of the season. With Arvanitis and O’Grady both being in the same situation as walk-ons, this has given them the ability to help each other through the ebbs and flows of a college basketball season. Having Tanner by his side every day, Arvanitis believes that they both make each other better on and off the court due to the friendship that they have built over the past two years playing in Moon Township. 

“Being in the same position as walk-ons, we work hard together and are with each other the whole time. We both try to make each other better every day and it is great to have a person by your side. Even when we are in practice, after a play, we will both come over to each other and talk about what we could have done better in each situation and how we can get better, and we take that constructive criticism well which makes us both better.”

Cyril Arvanitis (31) celebrates with his teammates during Robert Morris’ Horizon League matchup against IUPUI on Jan. 4, 2024. (Photo: Ethan Morrison)

While many high school players spend their entire high school careers playing at the varsity level and have the opportunity to play on a wide range of AAU circuits during the high school basketball offseason, that is not the case for many walk-ons including O’Grady who didn’t have the chance to play on an AAU team during his high school career let alone start on his Upper Saint Clair varsity roster until his senior season back in 2021-22. 

With not being able to garner as much attention as someone who had the opportunity to play multiple years of varsity basketball in high school, O’Grady tried a different method to get his name out there to be a part of a Division I program. 

“I didn’t end up starting on my high school team until my senior year of high school so I was not recruited that heavily. After my high school season was over, I emailed several Division I coaches, and I got two responses from Robert Morris and Bryant, I ended up choosing Robert Morris as the school I wanted to go to. When I got the offer, I got it from a Twitter direct message from coach [Mike] Izzolino and he offered me a spot. It was a pretty nice experience being recruited that way, I just remember sending emails and messages, and it was cool to see one of the messages come back to me.”

O’Grady is no stranger to Robert Morris as he grew up about 30 minutes away from the Moon Township campus in Upper Saint Clair. Along with being from the area, many other factors helped him decide to walk on at Robert Morris.

“It is awesome to be the hometown kid and to go to the school that both my parents went to is just really special. My mom is in the athletics hall of fame at RMU for tennis, so it was an easy decision for me to come here. Coach [Andy] Toole has a great reputation and the first time that I was able to meet him and the other coaches, I just knew that it was a perfect fit for me.”

Tanner O’Grady (24) drives to the hoop during his freshman season as Robert Morris faced off against Pitt-Greensburg. (Photo: Ethan Morrison)

On the other hand, playing for his hometown school was out of the cards for Arvanitis as he hails from Elberon, New Jersey. 

Even though Arvanitis is away from home and living in a different state, after meeting the coaching staff at Robert Morris and knowing the opportunity that he would have as a walk-on at the school was something he could not pass up. It was a perfect fit for the New Jersey native to live out his dream of playing Division I basketball. 

“When I was in high school, I didn’t get recruited by any Division I schools, and being able to be a part of a program at the Division I level was always my goal. When I got the offer to walk on here [at Robert Morris] I was very grateful. When I first went on my visit to Robert Morris, I fell in love with the coaching staff. They seemed like they were very knowledgeable and good people. As a walk-on here I get to travel with the team, practice and do everything that the players get to do so that is what drew me to this school because of all the different things that I could do as a walk-on.”

Once the pair of walk-ons had the chance to step onto the campus during their freshman season, they began to work out and practice with the team as they were gearing up for the season. 

For Arvanitis especially, it was a humbling experience for him when he began to practice with the team knowing just how hard it is to be able to play basketball at the Division I level. 

“When I first got to Robert Morris, the idea of what I had in my head of what it takes to play at the Division I level and what it takes to play at this level was completely different, especially in the Horizon League in a good mid-major conference,” Arvanitis said. “Once I got to school, I had the chance to meet the scholarship players and the other walk-ons and they were really good. A lot of people do not understand how good you must be to play at this level so that humbled me and I understood what I needed to do to become a better player. You just must keep working hard and put in a lot of time to be able to be a good player at this level.”

As walk-ons, both O’Grady and Arvanitis get the opportunities to have the same experiences that the other scholarship players have on the roster when it comes to travel and how they are treated by their coaches and teammates. However, the one thing that sticks out the most when it comes to their role on the team that both enjoy most, is their role on the scout team.

The scout team plays a key role in the team’s preparation for each game as a group of players go up against the starting lineup and run a multitude of plays along with different offensive and defensive sets. O’Grady has enjoyed the scout team, especially this season because it allows him to grow as a player and can beat some of the scholarship players in the practice setting. 

 “This year practicing as a walk-on benefitted me,” O’Grady said. “We had some players out with injury so I was thrown into practice a lot of times this year and I was doing well. By being thrown into practice, that got me a lot more confident with my game.”

Along with O’Grady, Arvanitis also shared a similar sentiment when it came to participating in the scout team in practice with the Colonials. While also enjoying having the opportunity to get the chance to compete and beat some of the scholarship players on the roster during practice, it has also given him a larger scope in the mental game of basketball.

Many players who get the chance to play in the starting rotation work on mastering plays and sets as they prepare for each game. But on the scout team, Arvanitis has learned and mastered several sets and plays from different teams to be able to help his teammates prepare for the next game. 

He might make mistakes sometimes, but his attention to detail and striving for perfection have been one of the ways that Arvanitis has made himself a better player. 

“You are activating your mind to make you extremely focused when you are playing scout,” Arvanitis said. “Sometimes you are going to mess up but you have to try to be perfect on scout team because that’s your job. If you are not perfect, you are hurting the team who are preparing for the game, so it has taught me to lock in and that has made me more focused.” Being a walk-on is not for everyone, and to go along with the rigors of the practice schedule travel, during the season, those individuals also must work out on their own time as well making sure that they stay in the right shape and are prepared for the next challenge ahead. But for O’Grady and Arvanitis, it is not something that they would ever give up.

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