IU managers thriving in a league of their own

Confirmation arrived via text message early last Tuesday evening.

The game was on.

Later on, at an otherwise quiet night at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, the fabled Big Ten venue would host conference basketball of a different kind. The Illinois basketball managers were able and willing to take on the managers of Indiana on Feb. 13.

Contests such as this one, played between the student support staffs of the real men’s basketball teams slated to match up on the same court the following night, are a quietly traditional part of the buildup to college basketball games across the country.

At IU, where the upstart Hoosier manager team is now back on the floor after several years of inaction, it’s another perk to what is already one of the sweetest jobs on campus.

“It’s a really cool experience getting to travel around and play guys,” said Zack McKeown, one of 15 student managers with the IU men’s basketball program this season. “Our group’s become real close so far this year. We’ve been through our struggles and we get on each other, but in the end, it’s all fun and games.”

Not to mention, a nice outlet for managers between demanding work days.

Focused and dependable student managers are the lifeblood for successful high-major college programs such as Indiana. They pack, unpack and roll out equipment for home and road games. They dutifully wipe the floors, monitor water coolers, edit and break down film from games and practices. They also rebound and set screens for IU’s roster during warmups and shootarounds.

Along with fulfilling those responsibilities — and keeping up with academics — there is also time for fun.

And at Indiana, the managers are having plenty of it.

They’ve won 11 of the 15 games they’ve played against managers from other schools this season, representing the flagship university from a basketball-mad state quite well.

They call themselves the “M.O.B. Squad,” a name that, depending on the night, can mean different things. Some nights, it’s “Managers of Basketball.” On others, it’s “Manufacturers Of Buckets.”

“It’s a running joke,” head manager Matt Chaffee said. “At the start of the year, we were trying to wear shirts that matched, and we had these shirts laying around, so we’re like, ‘Why not?’ We just wear them for the manager games.”

Chaffee monitors the group text chain shared by fellow head managers at the 13 other Big Ten schools, which serves to coordinate the games, along with other scheduling minutiae.

These managers’ games are, at their heart, informal pickup contests. Though the stage on which they are played make them a cherished part of the college season.

Most schools travel to road games with only three or four student managers, so putting together a starting five can occasionally become an exercise in creativity. When the Indiana team is hosting, it has a core of eight playing managers, the bulk of which are juniors and seniors.

On the road, the team might enlist the help of former IU forward Derek Elston, now the program’s director of player development, and/or the services of director of basketball operations Brian Walsh or graduate manager Gabe Snider, both with Division I playing experience at Akron and Illinois-Chicago, respectively.

But those three are only invited when the team is in a pinch on the road. There is honor in playing — and winning — with your own.

“They played at Michigan and Seton Hall,” Chaffee said. “We haven’t used them since before Christmas, just because we try to make it legit. It feels better when we get the win.”

And wins matter.

Just like the men’s basketball teams they represent, managers play for a trip to the Manager Games National Championship, held in conjunction with the Final Four this year in San Antonio. This will be the third year of the event, which welcomes up to eight manager squads from around the country.

Two seasons ago, a group of Michigan State managers drew up a 64-team postseason tournament that relies mostly on fan votes to determine winners in the early rounds until games are played at the Final Four.

Although the IU men’s team would need a Big Ten Tournament automatic bid to qualify for the NCAA Tournament this year, the M.O.B. Squad already has San Antonio firmly in its sights.

During their Feb. 13 managers’ game, tipoff between IU and Illinois was scheduled for 9:45 p.m., although the contest didn’t actually tip until 10:17. Late arrivals, film sessions or team dinners often delay the showdowns — or scrap them entirely. A week before, a scheduled game between IU’s and Minnesota’s managers was canceled at the last minute when the Golden Gophers’ team plane arrived late at Monroe County Airport.

“They can get cancelled pretty quickly,” Chaffee said, “just because, at the end of the day, we’re at the very bottom of the totem pole. With traveling and flights and film, this is the first thing that gets pulled. The earliest we’ll ever play a game is, like, 9 p.m. The latest we’ve started a game is 11:30 or 11:45. At Michigan, it was a six-overtime game and we were there until 1:30 a.m.”

Once the Illinois traveling contingent settled into town and completed its team responsibilities, IU’s freshmen managers were dispatched to pick up the Illini managers at their hotel in downtown Bloomington.

Assembly Hall was quiet, though not altogether empty by the time Illinois rolled into the arena at 10:06 p.m. A group of friends, roommates, girlfriends and other supporters gathered around the scorer’s table to watch the evening’s matchup, which included two halves with running 20-minute clocks. The timer stops in the final two minutes of each period, and offensive players call their own fouls.

Sometimes, IU’s main roster wanders in to catch the action for a home contest.

But on that particular Tuesday, the M.O.B. Squad is probably relieved that didn’t happen.

Indiana’s managers led by 10 points midway through the second half, but lost that advantage after allowing Illinois’ cadre of perimeter shooters to spring free for open shots.

“You cannot help off this kid here,” Chaffee said during a 9-0 Illinois run, pointing to an Illini manager. “He’s hit like seven 3s!”

An Illinois layup with nine seconds left gave the visitors a 59-57 lead, which is where the margin would end. Indiana players dove to the floor near center court to try and recover a turnover in the waning moments, but the effort was to no avail.

Suddenly, the arena was just as quiet as these students found it.

They lost. And there would be little time to regroup.

In a matter of hours, the young men on both sides would return to familiar roles. Illinois was due back at Assembly Hall around 1 p.m. Wednesday for its pregame shootaround, while IU’s managers would return around the same time to prepare equipment and supplies for that evening’s 8:30 tip-off.

“It’s tough when you lose, because we’re gonna hear it tomorrow,” said Chaffee, a senior. “That makes it worse. But it’s still fun. This is the first year we’ve really done it during my college career. Playing on a floor like this, you take it for granted. People come in here every day and are just blown away by it. I was the first couple times, but you get used to it. It’s definitely been worthwhile. It’s probably the best experience I’ve had in my life.”


  1. Ok great. Managers get to play some pick up games in the big gym. Is this another example of inclusion?
    The best thing going on at IU is IU ladies basketball team and T.Moren/staff.
    Indy Star February 12, 2014: “Is IU Recruit Tyra Buss To Good To Be True?”
    Yes, Tyra Buss is true.
    Vote for T.B. for Senior Class Award. (Vote one time each day thru March 19).
    IU 82 Minnesota 70.
    Great team including coaching….highlighted with turn overs (7 by T.B.), double double by Yeaney, outstanding play by Cahill, (almost double double), Warthen, Penn, Royster, Marchase, Wickeware, and T.B. with 36 points plus 7 assists (which means rest of team is catching the ball and finishing). IU ladies refused to lose, focused, fought, we’re tough both, mentally and physically.

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