The men’s basketball locker room in Thompson-Boling Arena, home of Vol basketball, is an elite space in the world of college sports. It’s where players prepare for games, inspire one another at halftime, and celebrate or grieve after the final buzzer.
It’s a place for both star players and those who spend most of their time out of the spotlight—including walk-ons like guard Kent Gilbert.
The 6-foot-1 point guard isn’t the face of the program. He doesn’t have NIL deals with big-name brands. But the junior recreation and sport management major is an integral part of the team.
The term walk-on can be misleading. Walk-on players don’t wander in off the street—they’re recruited like any other player. The biggest distinction is that they don’t receive an athletics scholarship.
As a young basketball-obsessed boy growing up in Knoxville, Gilbert started his career at the rec center down the street. His talent grew as he moved to bigger courts.
He saw what his future could look like in basketball thanks to his father, Jon Gilbert, a former executive senior associate athletic director at UT. Gilbert saw iconic players and met championship-winning coaches early on.
“Growing up, my dad would always take me up to the gym, so I had a preexisting relationship with [Head Coach Rick] Barnes,” Gilbert said. “We’ve known each other for a long time, so it was always in my mind that I wanted to get back to Knoxville after I moved away.”
After attending and playing basketball at three different high schools in three different states, Gilbert was ready to call a team home for his four years of college. But recruiting for the 2020–21 season was shaken by the pandemic. Unable to visit colleges and make personal connections with coaches, Gilbert was skeptical about which direction his basketball career would take.
Hoping to play on a college court despite the obstacles, Gilbert kept his ringer on. When the call came, he heard the voice of Assistant Coach Michael Schwartz asking him to play at Tennessee.
“I started considering smaller colleges around North Carolina, but Tennessee has always been in the back of my mind,” Gilbert said. “Once Coach Schwartz reached out, I jumped at the opportunity to come home.”
Gilbert is now entering his third season with Vol hoops. And although he may not be in the starting lineup, his role on the scout team supports the overall success of the team. These players memorize and master upcoming opponents’ game plans and strategies to help the team prepare for games.
“They do as much preparation to help get these guys prepared as anybody,” Barnes said in an interview with the Knoxville News Sentinel. “They learn the other team’s material quicker than you may think and give us a great look at what they’re doing.”
Every member knows their role in supporting the team, no matter how big or small. Having so much talent on an 18-player roster leaves little to no room for ego. Some players might play the whole game while others warm the bench, but a win encompasses them all.
After workouts, weightlifting, film analysis, and practice, the team ends the day with a large family dinner. Sitting around the table, there’s no distinction between stars and walk-ons—just a brotherhood fueled by basketball.
And it’s players like Gilbert that helped that brotherhood achieve the 2022 SEC championship—the team’s first since 1979.
Photos courtesy of Tennessee Athletics