Team Managers Plan Tourney to Crown Nation’s Best

Posted by Kenny Ocker (@KennyOcker) on February 19th, 2016

How do you determine which school has the best managers? Is it the school whose white uniforms are the whitest? The school with the most perfectly folded towels? The school where managers grab the most rebounds during practice? How about a 64-team basketball tournament with the final four teams meeting at the real Final Four in Houston? That last one is the dream of Michigan State managers Ian May and Andrew Novak, and Spartans’ assistant athletic director Kevin Pauga. But once that idea was on the table, even more questions emerged: How do you play? What if you can’t play every game? When’s the best time to play? How do you fit it into a bracket, still have fun and draw attention to the hard-working managers?

Imagine showing up to a pickup game and Juan Dixon is on the opposing team. That was the athletic predicament that some are now facing. (AP)

Imagine showing up to a pickup game and Juan Dixon is on the opposing team. That was the athletic predicament that some are now facing. (AP)

May formed a Twitter account in January 2015, @B1GManagerHoops, to track Big Ten managers’ basketball games last season, and enlisted Novak to help run it a short time later. The conference had informal manager games dating back at least to Pauga’s time as a manager – which started in 2000 – but the Twitter account and corresponding blog catalogued results and kept conference standings for the manager teams of the 14 schools for the first time. An online group message on the GroupMe app allowed the Big Ten managers to schedule games much more easily than they ever had before. “I made the Twitter account because I heard that teams were keeping their own records and there was a phone notepad, a little scratched-together thing of records that I got a hold of, and then from there I just started keeping track and I would gather up the scores just from people tweeting at me just in the Big Ten,” May said. “And then we had the same ambitions for this year, which was doing the Big Ten, and then all of a sudden we started getting scores from around the country.”

That unexpected explosion of participation took the trio by surprise. Now, instead of May and Novak having to scour Twitter for scores, results are sent to them nightly. Their Twitter account has nearly 1,300 followers. And Pauga volunteered to use his KPI ranking system to rank manager basketball teams with the same formula with which he ranks Division I men’s basketball teams. “It was just for fun at first and then it really started to become a lot bigger than we ever thought it would be,” Novak said. “Now we get scores sent to us all the time.” The three got together and formulated a 64-team postseason tournament concept with simple requirements: Be among the top 64 teams in the KPI rankings and play four games this season by the first weekend of March. The brackets are made with the same principles as those of the NCAA Tournament, with one exception: Conference rematches are encouraged to boost the likelihood of games being played. If you can’t play the game, the formula-expected score of the game, coupled with fan voting, will be added together to determine who reaches the next round.

Pauga rolled the concept out to the public Monday despite there being some loose ends – funding how to get teams to the Final Four among them – after he, May and Novak vetted them with friends in the industry, coaches and former managers. “We’ve already made some serious progress on working to get those final four manager teams to Houston to play it off,” Pauga said. “We’re still trying to work on some funding for travel and there’s certainly some things relative to make this good – that we do this right – that come into play. The master plan is there, and yet we don’t want to lose sight about what this all is, too: It’s about the managers and GAs and staff members that get together with one another and get to play the night before the game.”

(Top left) - MSU vs. Maryland, #1 is Ian; (Bottom left) - MSU postgame stretch at Iowa; (right) - Andrew Novak using a trash can as a prop to input scores.

(Top left) – MSU vs. Maryland, #1 is Ian; (Bottom left) – MSU postgame stretch at Iowa; (right) – Andrew Novak using a trash can as a prop to input scores.

The rules of manager games are simple: There are two 20-minute halves of 5-on-5 basketball, and you call your own fouls. The clock is always running. Active varsity players can’t play. But if your school doesn’t travel five managers – few do – then support staff, including graduate assistants, strength coaches and assistant coaches are welcome to hop in. Games often happen late at night, when visiting managers have finished their work duties, or early in the morning, before they have to be back to work. The home team’s managers often drive over to pick up the visitors and host them in the empty gym, or hold games in student recreation centers if the arena is unavailable, then drive them back to the hotel when the games are over. All managers share a passion for the game of basketball that draws them to the sport despite their athletic careers ending in high school – or before that. Pickup basketball gives them a reason to come together, burn some time before the big game and network with like-minded students from other schools.

“I know what it’s like to be a manager and it’s kind of a thankless job,” said Oakland video coordinator Alex Varlan, a former Tennessee women’s basketball manager. “This is a way to reward those guys, let them get out there and compete a little bit.” Coaches and players take an interest in the managers’ games, too. Oftentimes, players will attend manager games and cheer on their fellow students, or they will ask them how the game went first thing the next morning. “I love basketball, I love playing and intramurals is one thing, but when you play a manager game – honestly, we’re managers, we’re not scholarship players, the arena’s not sold out by any means – but you still are playing for your school, you’re playing for pride,” Missouri State head manager Collin Dimitroff said. “All our players are really supportive and get really excited when we do well – or bash us when we don’t. You don’t want to get ripped on by anybody, so we definitely are busting our tail.”

Said Nebraska head manager Skyler Sullivan: “Between our coaches and players, they know all about it, and they love it. ‘You guys playing tonight?’ ‘What time are you guys playing?’ Coach (Tim) Miles, first thing in the morning, asking, ‘Did you guys win? How did it go?’ And if we lose, like we lost to Wisconsin, he’s giving us (grief) right away. ‘We didn’t lose as bad as you guys did,’ that’s what he’ll say, ‘You guys got your (butts) kicked.’ So after the loss to Wisconsin, he was still talking about the manager game.” Gamesmanship is definitely at play in manager games, especially when Maryland is involved; Terrapins graduate assistant and NCAA Tournament champion Juan Dixon, the most outstanding player in the 2002 Final Four, has been known to suit up. Playing with him has been special for Maryland manager Ryan Lumpkin. “He’s a very high-IQ player, so just being around him, you get looks that you wouldn’t even see for yourself. At first, when he first came to the coaching staff, there was still that awe of, ‘Wow, he’s Juan Dixon,’ and you have that every now and then, but we’re just playing basketball,” Lumpkin said. “I see that when our league opponents are playing against him and they’re like, ‘Wow, this is Juan Dixon and I’m guarding him right now,’ and they’ll double- and triple-team him, but it’s a very fun experience playing with him.”

Michigan State’s Novak said his favorite game was an overtime thriller they lost against the Terrapins managers. When asked if Dixon played, he said simply, “He did. Unfortunately.” Purdue manager Luke Brenneman called defending Dixon “pretty much impossible.” Said Brenneman, “He can pull up from 30 feet and you have a hand in his face and he still made it, you know? It was fun, but you couldn’t do anything.” When Maryland visited Ohio State last season, however, the Buckeyes knew what was coming, and they had a trick up their sleeve of their own. The Ohio State managers advertised that Dixon and the Maryland managers were coming to play them, and sent a poster to ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who poked fun at Dixon for playing, Lumpkin said. But when Maryland arrived at the gym, former NBA No. 1 draft pick Greg Oden was stretching at halfcourt. “I guess that’s the same feeling that everybody gets when they play against Juan but 10 times worse because, you know, Greg is a 7-footer and he’ll always be that imposing force,” Lumpkin said. “I remember I was guarding someone on the wing and there was a screen coming and I thought I could get through it, and I got destroyed by Greg Oden. That’s what I’ll take to my grave, I guess.” Ohio State manager Robbie Rucki had a slightly different take on Oden’s appearance: “It was pretty funny. … We only used Greg for that one game because it would be unfair – we would just give him the ball every possession – but we just played him that one time.” Among the many other graduate assistants who’ve suited up are former Northern Iowa hero Ali Farokhmanesh (at Nebraska), former Cornell Sweet 16 center Jeff Foote (at Miami), and Wayne Simien and Brady Morningstar at Kansas. West Virginia manager Justin D’Apolito had the pleasure of playing the last two during a game earlier this season. “I’m talking to their manager, we’re trying to figure out the feelers – are staff playing? – and we have a couple staffers that play with us, like our video coordinator, our assistant coach, just to fill out a roster, so we’re not playing with four or five people,” D’Apolito said. “So he had said, ‘We’ll get our staff to play too.’ All of a sudden, we’re suited up and we go out there, and Wayne Simien, Big 12 player of the year, and Brady Morningstar, who I think has a national championship playing for Kansas (ed. note: he does), both are suited up and playing against us. That made it a little more interesting.” The Mountaineers’ managers lost that one, but Kansas’ managers are ranked No. 2 in the KPI rankings, so there’s little shame in that.

This 7-footer made a "one game only" appearance for Ohio State. "If not,

This 7-footer made a “one game only” appearance for Ohio State. If not, “it would be unfair,” said Ohio State manager Robbie Ruckie.

Rivalries still matter, too. No. 3 Wisconsin beat Sullivan and Nebraska handily earlier this season, but when asked about the game, Badgers manager Ben Eckburg said, “Well, I don’t want to give ’em any bulletin board material, but we beat ’em pretty good. I think it was by 20 or 30 points.” He mentioned how much harder it is to win on the road when schools are without many of your managers and have to rely on members of the coaching staff to fill out their rosters. Georgia Tech manager Erik Maday said manager games are all in good fun, but that “it meant a little more” when his team beat Georgia. “In that one, tempers were flaring a little bit on their side because we beat them by something like 40. One of our guys, who probably put up 50 points that night, was playing in a polo. And I know, one kid, you could hear from their huddle, the kid was screaming, ‘We’re getting beaten by a guy in a freakin’ polo.’ It was kind of a slap in the face,” Maday said. “That trend, it started in our first game against VCU. He had nothing else to wear so he came to our stadium in a polo, and ever since he’s been wearing one.” The Yellow Jackets, at 8-2, are 11th in the KPI rankings.

Like many schools outside the Big Ten, Kennesaw State didn’t pick up on manager games until last season. Manager Tre Murrell tried to organize a 5-on-5 game against Atlantic Sun rival Florida Gulf Coast, but two of his own staff members backed out at the last minute. No matter, because an FGCU manager told Murrell he would give them two of his own managers to round out their team. “We get there and we see who they have and we form teams, and this guy gives us the two absolute worst managers ever. Worst two managers, and we still only lost by two, I think,” Murrell said. “I thought that he was my guy, he was supposed to be helping me out, but no, he tried to pull a fast one. So we’ve got a little something in store for Florida Gulf Coast this weekend.” Managers also get opportunities to play in venues they would never get to get onto the court at otherwise. Rutgers’ Matt Johnston got to fulfill a childhood dream when he made a three-pointer on the road against Indiana’s managers. “Last year, I played at Assembly Hall, and growing up as a kid, you dream of being able to hit a three at Assembly Hall. You don’t really know if that’s going to happen, but you’re just getting the opportunity to play in some of the coolest basketball venues in the country.”

Purdue’s Brenneman, who grew up in Lafayette, Indiana, got to play on the same court he watched his childhood heroes play on before him. “Just through managing, I’ve been so many places and been to so many things that I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do,” said Brenneman, who’s also been able to visit Times Square and the Empire State Building as a manager. “It’s tough work, but in the long run, what I’ll be able to use, the references, the networks I have now, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

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