20181209_spo_managers

The Nebraska and Creighton managers play a basketball game each year the day before the real NU-CU game. 

LINCOLN — The most coveted Little Tikes hoop in Nebraska sat on the edge of the Hendricks Center practice court Friday night.

It stood just in front of the treadmills, where coach Tim Miles sends players if they aren’t hustling back on defense. The yellow net, stained from its previous life, hung onto the rim for dear life. A Creighton basketball bag filled with street clothes kept it from tipping.

Don’t let this hoop’s child-sized features fool you. It is the only physical symbol of a winner in the Nebraska-Creighton rivalry. There was no trophy for the Nebraska-Creighton basketball game at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Saturday night.

But Friday’s annual Nebraska- Creighton managers game absolutely has a trophy. And it’s a raggedy old former Goodwill Little Tikes hoop.

At 7:15 Friday night, the Creighton managers showed up in blue sweatshirts, carrying the hoop like the Stanley Cup. They placed it in the corner where they warmed up.

“We lost that last year,” senior UNL history major and four-year basketball manager Noah Lliteras said as they walked in. “That ain’t happening again.”

Welcome to the managers college basketball league.

It’s almost fitting that this world goes mostly unnoticed. Student managers are the unsung, unnoticed contributors. Without them, teams could not function.

They do the bidding of coaches and players. When anyone hits the floor at practice, four of them run out with white towels to dry off the wet spot. They squeeze water into players’ mouths on the sideline. They’re often seen on TV, offering water or a towel on the bench, usually ignored or waved off by a player frustrated with a foul.

Being a manager is a job. They’re not on scholarship. Most aren’t majoring in anything close to sports.

“We’re here an hour before practice, we’re here an hour after the players and coaches leave,” Lliteras said. “It’s a serious, serious time commitment.”

For some, this is actually their second job. Add practices and travel and two jobs on top of regular schoolwork, they might just be as busy as anyone on campus.

But the perk? This league. They love it.

The managers, most of them at least, are basketball freaks. Like Lliteras.

He wasn’t good enough to play in college, he said, so he joined as a manager to stay close to basketball. It’s natural for college men to yearn to play ball, when they may not have time for usual intramurals.

When the team travels, managers set up games with opposing managers. Most say yes.

When Illinois visited Lincoln last Sunday, Nebraska managers picked up the Illini managers and drove them to the Hendricks.

“We haven’t played all year so we’re going to be rusty,” an Illinois manager said on the drive to the Devaney Center.

The Illini wiped the floor with the Huskers and won by 40.

“Best shooting performance I’ve literally ever seen,” Lliteras said.

There are actually rankings on KPIsports.net. At the moment, Chattanooga is No. 1, followed by Indiana, Liberty, Rutgers and Illinois. Nebraska entered Friday No. 52, with a 1-1 record. Creighton was unranked.

But records be damned. This is a rivalry. This is the game that matters most.

Hence, the Little Tikes hoops.

It was the idea of a Nebraska manager in 2012.

“He felt like we needed a trophy so he just went to Goodwill and brought it to the game,” Lliteras said.

Winners write their name on the blue plastic pole holding up the hoop and take it home.

This is Nebraska-Creighton, so of course, there was a long winning streak hanging over the matchup recently. Nebraska won this game six years in the row. The streak ran opposite to what happened in front of thousands of fans, with Creighton’s streak over the Huskers. Miles’ managers had never lost to Creighton.

Until last year.

Creighton pulled off the upset — well, an upset if you ask any of the Nebraska managers — and the Jays took the Little Tikes hoop for the first time.

They drove north on Interstate 80 and that night, placed it on Creighton coach Greg McDermott’s desk. That bothered Nebraska managers, so Friday night was for redemption.

Though the game is somewhat thrown together, this league is serious. One Nebraska manager showed up wearing a plain blue sweatshirt.

“Really?” another manager said. “Had to wear blue tonight?”

There are two 20-minute halves in this league. Running clock. Call your own fouls.

Creighton took a 16-6 lead early Friday. After that, fouls got a little harder.

Managers games are raw, sloppy, beautiful basketball. There are loud, sarcastic claps in faces after made baskets. Arguments about fouls and trash talk aplenty after turnovers or 3s.

“He can’t shoot, don’t guard him out there.”

“They can’t stop you, man, they can’t stop you.”

After one foul call, Nebraska and Creighton managers had to be separated for nearly touching noses. Both sides, when subbing in and out, turned to teammates and complained about the opposite side.

At half, Creighton led 27-16.

“Less than a point a minute,” Lliteras said, out of breath, “is bad.”

Creighton extended its lead in the second, hitting a 3 to go up 30-16.

“Oh, that was a travel from here to Africa,” Nebraska manager Jacob Bigelow said from the bench.

It got a little chippy after that. A hard foul made the Creighton bench spill out onto the floor with a mix of “What was that?” and words that aren’t appropriate for print.

The claps from Creighton managers got louder after that, too. The shots from Nebraska a little more erratic. Teams stopped helping each other off the floor.

Nebraska made a run as the game got more physical. It was 40-32 with eight minutes left. But Creighton had too many shooters, not much different from the team the scholarship Huskers played Saturday.

Creighton won 48-37.

The teams shook hands at midcourt. A Nebraska and Creighton manager hugged with sly smiles.

A Creighton manager picked up the hoop and planted it — like Baker Mayfield at the Horseshoe — at midcourt. They kneeled and posed for a photo.

“Well,” said Vince Fritz, a Nebraska graduate assistant. “Get the one that matters tomorrow.”

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Chris Heady covers Husker football and is the Nebraska men's basketball beat writer. He started at The World-Herald in 2017. Follow him on Twitter @heady_chris. Email: chris.heady@owh.com.

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