John Putyrski didn't want to derail the dynasty.
Practices were one thing—he was always comfortable in practice—but this was the big stage. His three other teammates had all been here before and won the whole thing. Putyrski was the new guy. No way did he want to be responsible for Illinois State not winning back-to-back titles.
Of course, even if Illinois State did win, there would be no trophy or ring. The only thing on the line in this tournament is pride—and a possible Jay Bilas retweet. Welcome to the tournament before the tournament: Manager Madness at the Missouri Valley Conference.
All across the country, student-managers play pick-up games the night before the actual teams play. The Valley is the only league that has given their team managers their own conference tournament, and this is it’s second year. There's a bracket, seeding, an all-manager tournament team afterward and even a mock post-game press conference after the championship game. All of it giving the nearly 50 student-managers from eight of the league's 10 teams a chance to feel like the big boys for a few hours.
"We were talking about it all [last] year, trying to do it," Grant Peterson, a graduate senior manager for Northern Iowa. "I know a couple of the guys were like, 'It'll probably fall through, it's just talk.' But when we finally got there and started playing, it was like, 'Whoa, this is pretty awesome.'"
The idea had been bandied about among managers at a handful of the conference's schools last season, but it was Peterson who spearheaded the movement to create a full-fledged tournament. He called every one of the league's 10 schools, lining up managers for participation before taking it to the Missouri Valley. Since most programs only bring one or two managers on the road, he figured, why not try to set something up during conference tournament week?
Kristin Gregory, director of sports administration for the conference, liked the idea. The managers said they would play anywhere around St. Louis the day before the tournament started, as long as they could borrow basketballs, water coolers and clocks from the league. Peterson half-heartedly threw out the notion of using the Scottrade Center since games wouldn't start until night.
Gregory made a few calls and set it up—the managers could hold their tournament on the arena floor.
"For them to be so thankful and run with it, was great," Gregory said.
Thursday afternoon was the second year that "Manager Madness" has taken place before Arch Madness. The managers are allotted a two-hour window, when the league holds its postseason awards banquet anyway, to conduct the event.
Both years, eight of the league's 10 teams have had manager teams compete. (Because of the travel schedules of Wichita State and Indiana State, those teams have been unable to make it.) They play 3-on-3 games to 21, scoring in 1-point and 2-point baskets in the half-court. There are no referees. It’s single-elimination, just like the real tournament, until a champion and a third-place team are crowned.
"It's a fun atmosphere, but at the same time, we are definitely playing to win," said Missouri State's Collin Dimitroff.
Dimitroff, a junior who has been a Bears manager for three seasons, expected the play last year to be like most intramural games: good, but not great. A former high school player himself, he expected he and his teammates—Dominic Tiemann, Adam Pearson, Tyler Davis and Lucas Houchin—would be able to win it.
"Illinois State was raining threes all day," he laughed.
The Redbirds squad of Connor Kaminke, Andy Holloway and K.J. Conkin won the title last year. This year, teams across the conference knew their strengths and weaknesses. They practiced hard in the weeks leading up to Thursday's tournament, getting pointers from the coaches and players they serve on a nightly basis.
"Some of these guys can really play," said Drake's Cory Marquardt. "And we did some scouting during the season, too."
Marquardt is only a sophomore and, having played in the tournament both seasons, can see the blueprint it takes to build a winning team. He played basketball in high school and when the student-manager interviews take place next fall, he'll be looking for managers with playing experience. And maybe a little size, too.
"Right now, some of the manager's games aren't up to par," Peterson said, laughing. "You see what other teams have and now you have to build your program up to that level."
The recruiting wars in the Valley might only intensify now that Illinois State has captured the first two tournaments. The Redbirds took out the upstart Bradley team, 21-18 on Thursday afternoon, cementing the budding managerial dynasty.
Gregory said that as long as the managers want to organize teams, the Missouri Valley will continue to let them hold their tournament.
"I think it's a great," she said. "It's something that, if all the other conferences have that time window, I suggest that they let them do it. It's a great opportunity not only for the managers, but also for the student-athletes playing in the tournament, to come watch. It's an awesome way for them to give back to the managers for all the hard work they give throughout the season."
Missouri State's entire team and coaching staff ducked out of the banquet early to come watch the tournament. Some assistants from Drake and Bradley came as well. Players from Northern Iowa dropped by in time for the semifinal game. Illinois State had little support, until the end, when two of their assistant coaches showed up.
After the title-clinching basket, they shook hands with the Bradley managers, before being called to the locker room by one of their assistants. Back to work, they all thought.
"He said he had to show us something," said Kaminke a senior and a four-year manager. "We walked in the locker room and the coaching staff was in there with all the players. They played, 'We Are The Champions,' and dumped water on us. That was pretty cool."