The game before the game: Inside the managers' matchup

"PAY HEED, ALL Who Enter: Beware of the Phog.''

Well, OK, maybe not all. Or apparently not all of the time.

Because right this second, walking into Kansas' Phog Allen Fieldhouse is like heading into the Vatican to hear an altar boy celebrate Mass, or entering the Oval Office and finding the janitor sitting behind the desk.

Yes, there are people with basketballs on the court, doing what James Naismith's rules suggest one do with a basketball on a court, what Wilt Chamberlain and 28 other first-team All-Americans have done on this, their home court. They're dribbling and shooting.

But they're ... well, ordinary. Ordinary-looking, ordinary-sized -- taking ordinary shots, and talking about ordinary things such as exams and internships.

And there's no one in the stands. Not a single person in a single seat, not all the way to the tippy-top of the place where the walls meet the retired jersey-stuffed rafters.

There are students waiting outside for the best seats in the house -- the ones currently unoccupied. But the students don't move to come in. They're working on their laptops, scrolling through their phones, listening to their music.

And right now, there is absolutely no need to pay heed to anyone.

"Yeah, I'm pretty sure they're not camping out for us,'' deadpans Kansas manager Chip Kueffer, who's in the fourth year of a five-year special education major.

Welcome to the manager games -- lowercase m, lowercase g -- the showcase for one of the lowest, yet among the most crucial, species on the college basketball evolutionary ladder.

Sweat moppers by day, court mavens by night -- these are the true basketball Cinderellas. They gather late, sometimes after midnight, to play the game in some of the sport's most famous arenas -- only to return to reality the next morning, with towels, not jerseys, slung over shoulders.

So, yes, the game might be at Allen Fieldhouse, but this isn't a Phog-level crowd, to put it kindly. But across the country, on courts as storied as this one, they still play, in front of bleachers just as empty.

"Our record attendance, I believe,'' says Ryan Lumpkin, a manager at Maryland, "is two."

So, even if you're playing a game with no one there to see it? When you're a manager, as long as the game tips off, it counts.

IT'S 20 MINUTES before game time, and Kansas sophomore Brayden Carroll is fidgeting with a mask, adjusting the straps before wrapping them around his head. He broke his nose for the second time in a rec game recently and just last week had it surgically repaired.

A sane person wouldn't risk a nose job on a manager game. Of course, a sane person wouldn't be a basketball manager.

The demands of the job are high, the pay nonexistent and the tasks menial. Essentially, these are college students who willingly spend their entire days catering to the whims of other college students, while simultaneously trying not to interrupt the rhythms of a maniacal head coach.

Need a water bottle? Got it. A towel? On it.


Managers spend four years as water boys, just to be around the game. So given the chance to actually play the game, you really think a broken nose will be a hindrance?

No. Carroll was so desperate he asked Carlton Bragg, Kansas' 6-foot-9 freshman, if he still had the mask he wore last summer when he broke his nose in South Korea. He did, so here's Carroll making like Hannibal Lecter.

"It's totally worth it,'' he says. "I've got to play.''

That's the initial compulsion behind the manager games. That, and, since these guys have the keys to the kingdom, the chance to say you've hooped on some pretty sweet courts. The games have been going on for years, a sort of underground rec league, governed by virtually the same rules: two 20-minute halves, running clock, call your own foul, no free throws until the final two minutes. Tipoff is always the night before the "real" game and usually late, since the visiting managers can't escape until their duties are done.

"When we played Florida State, we started around midnight because they had film session,'' Louisville manager Patrick Reilingh says. "Then they were at a hotel downtown and they didn't have a car. We had to send one of our managers to pick them up.''

By manager game terms, then, West Virginia was pretty early, its nine-player crew showing up to Allen Fieldhouse at 9:15.

The team arrived in Lawrence by 6 p.m., and once dinner was finished and the players set up in study hall, the managers headed out for their game. (It's worth noting that, as the West Virginia managers made sure their players were ready for study hall, Kueffer wrote EXAM! in bold black ink on the palm of his hand. He'd been in the gym more or less since 8 a.m., and he didn't want to forget to study for his exercise science exam the next day.)

But the Mountaineers had a tight window. Curfew is 11, and it's up to the managers to complete bed check and ensure that everyone is tucked in.

Would you want to be late for Bob Huggins?

"Yeah, no,'' West Virginia head manager Justin D'Apolito says. "No, we gotta get right back."

So the five-minute warm-up was condensed to three, and by 9:25, everyone is ready to go.

"They didn't even do a jump ball, just checked it,'' says West Virginia freshman forward Esa Ahmad, who came along with junior guard Teyvon Myers to be part of the manager's bench mob. "That's how you know it's a manager game.''

West Virginia had a two-point lead at the half, but then a Kansas player with a scruffy beard, wearing crummy-looking gray cutoff sweatpants, a blue T-shirt and low-top sneakers, started draining threes.

"Oh, that's Brady Morningstar,'' one of the scorekeepers says. Morningstar, who graduated in 2011 and has been playing overseas, played in 116 games at Kansas, including 11 NCAA tournament games.

Then, an older guy in a white T-shirt slammed home a Kansas miss.

"Man, who is that guy?" Ahmad asks.

The dunker, who has a peripheral role with Kansas' basketball operations, has asked not to be identified -- lest folks who would like him to appear in charity games get miffed that he has turned them down.

"Yeah, his name is up there,'' said one of the clock operators. As she speaks, she cocks her head up and to the right, toward the rafters -- where the retired jerseys hang.

"What?" Ahmad and Myers say in unison. "Can we play?" Myers asks. "We should be allowed to play. Man, that ain't right. That ain't right.''

MYERS HAS A point -- the word "manager" is broadly defined here. Road teams frequently travel with only three or four guys, and home team managers often have real-world obligations, like schoolwork. The goal is to find five guys who can play.

"I was on the plane one time, just trying to find five guys who had shoes,'' says Notre Dame junior Dan Brndjar.

Sports information directors, strength coaches, assistant coaches, radio analysts -- virtually anyone who is associated with a team and owns a pair of sneakers has been pressed into service.

As Ahmad and Myers sat on the bench, West Virginia assistant coach Ron Everhart played against Kansas. He's 54.

A year ago, Maryland rolled up to the Schottenstein Center at Ohio State with Juan Dixon -- only to find out that the 2002 Final Four's most outstanding player wasn't even the most intimidating guy on the floor.

"Yeah, Greg Oden was working out at our place,'' says Ohio State senior Robbie Rucki, who had gotten word of Dixon's presence. "So we brought him along.''

"I'm a 6-2, 180-pound aging star with a bum knee,'' says Dixon, now the special assistant to Mark Turgeon. "I'm not 7-0, 290 pounds. That's like the ultimate ringer.''

The Buckeyes simply parked Oden in the post and tossed the ball in to him, over and over again. Dixon, Maryland's all-time leading scorer, did his best to counter, but says that age and that bad knee have conspired to turn him into more of a "facilitator" than a scorer. And, well, it's hard to facilitate when, instead of All-Americans, you're passing to a bunch of guys in baggy shirts who played some high school ball.

Dixon swears the Terps would have won if it weren't for graduate assistant John Auslander coming up short on one too many 3-pointers (Auslander, despite hearing Dixon's teasing accusations, decided not to comment).

To be fair, playing against the national defensive player of the year might have factored into the results, too.

"Shoot from the outside, don't drive, that's pretty much all we could do,'' Lumpkin, the Maryland senior, says. "Everyone was getting their shot blocked -- but how many people can say they got their shot blocked by Greg Oden? I can.''

YES, ON ANY given night, the managers could be playing against Oden, Dixon ... or even Pete McCormick, a 38-year-old former basketball official and high school player from Grand Rapids, Michigan, who thought he hung up his whistle and sneakers for good.

But one night when the Notre Dame managers asked McCormick to pinch hit, he giddily laced up his shoes and joined in, blending in with everyone else in their T-shirts and shorts, until ...

"Father! Hey, Father, I'm open!''

In the fall of 2000, McCormick stopped officiating high school games because he found a calling even higher than hoops. He entered the Moreau Seminary.

Today, Father McCormick is the director of Notre Dame's campus ministry, the Irish basketball team chaplain, and perhaps the only holy ringer in managerial hoops.

"Holy, maybe,'' he says. "Ringer, not so much.''

The man of the cloth admits he is governed as much by the basketball commandments as the other 10 while he's on the court, and believes whatever advantage he might have when his opponents first realize he's a priest is fleeting.

"Here's the deal: On the court, it usually takes a hot second to get over the fact that they have to push a priest to get a rebound,'' McCormick said. "Do I push back? Heck, yeah. I'm not brawling -- this isn't the '90s Pistons, but I'm not going to lose. I push back.''

It's true: While the level of play might not be what these highbrow courts are accustomed to hosting, these aren't glorified games of H-O-R-S-E, either.

Lumpkin, the Maryland manager, says his crew and Ohio State's once argued an overtime block/charge call for so long that they nearly ran out of time to finish before the lights cut out.

Andrew Novak, a Michigan State manager and unofficial commissioner of the Big 10 basketball managers' unofficial league, had to be an independent mediator for a game between Northwestern and Ohio State. The two teams couldn't decide who last touched a ball out of bounds in a sudden-death overtime game. Novak ruled the game ended in a tie.

The ultimate manager game kerfuffle, fittingly, belongs to Duke and North Carolina. The Tobacco Road rivals once had one of the best, most intense -- and by manager standards, well-attended -- games going.

Until two years ago, when they pulled the plug on the whole thing.

While corralling and clearing a loose ball rebound, one of the Carolina players inadvertently whacked a Duke player in the nose. He went down, and the benches cleared, all caught on a fan's grainy video. This being Duke-Carolina, it went viral pretty quickly.

"After the game was over, everything was fine,'' North Carolina senior Forrest Reynolds says. "But we both decided it was best for us to stay out of the limelight for a little bit. ... It's not worth getting in a fight.''

IT IS, HOWEVER, worth something.

What, exactly, is what former Spartans manager Kevin Pauga, now an athletic administrator at MSU, is trying to figure out.

The sensei of managers everywhere, Pauga parlayed his own Gatorade-schlepping time into an upwardly mobile position at Michigan State. Now he's taking the manager games public.

In January, he plugged the scores, sent in via Twitter, into his own computer program, the KPI, and produced the first Manager Rankings.

Currently, there are 124 teams ranked, representing 24 different conferences (Kansas, at 4-0, is No. 1 -- its strongest win being that game against WVU.)

"It's crazy," said Michigan State manager Ian May, who along with Novak proposed ranking the teams to Pauga. "We were really surprised with how fast it took off. Now people are on Twitter or talking about how they checked their rankings, 'Hey, we're No. 5!' We didn't expect this at all.''

And they aren't finished.

On March 6, Pauga will unveil the first Manager Games Postseason Tournament Field of 64. He's still working out the kinks, but teams will either play to advance or, if real managerial demands make actual games impossible, winners will be determined via a combination of a KPI projected score and a fan vote.

Where will this all lead? If Pauga has his way: Houston, site of the 2016 Final Four. Pauga and his team are still seeking funding and figuring out facilities, but if everything comes together, it might also host the Manager Final Four.

Imagine that: One Shining Moment for the guys that shine the floor.

For more on the student managers' games, watch College GameDay on March 5.