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.
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.
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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6--6, 218 | Sophomore | Guard | Bolingbrook, Ill.
Akenten clocked just 21 minutes his freshman year and shot 2 for 9 from the floor, eight of those nine shots coming from behind the arc. Akenten said he was “humbled” by last season, and he’ll get a shot this year to stay on the floor for much, much longer than 21 minutes.
6--1, 184 | Sophomore | Guard | Raleigh, N.C.
Nebraska’s fifth starter, Allen will have plenty of opportunity to prove he deserves serious playing time. Allen is Nebraska’s best bet for a sharp-shooter, and the Huskers’ season may depend on Allen’s ability to stretch the floor and give Nebraska a fifth weapon to add to the “Fab Four.”
6--8, 250 | Senior | Forward | Gothenburg, Neb.
Borchardt cut some weight and it proved beneficial in the closed scrimmage against Iowa State. He hit four of his five shots filling in for Isaiah Roby while he was in foul trouble. That’ll be Borchardt’s main role this year — filling in for Roby and Isaac Copeland when they’re in foul trouble or need a rest.
KENT SIEVERS/THE WORLD-HERALD
6-4, 180 | Junior | Guard | Orange, N.J.
Burke is a transfer from Robert Morris who has to sit out this season. He’s on deck to be Nebraska’s next star.
6-9, 225 | Senior | Forward | Raleigh, N.C.
A key cog in the Nebraska machine, Copeland will be NU’s stretch-four. He’s playing better than any time in his career, Tim Miles said. Copeland was honorable mention All-Big Ten last season with 12.9 points and 6.1 rebounds per game.
6-1, 200 | Freshman | Guard | Omaha
Costello is a walk-on from Omaha and won the Class B state title in 2017 with Elkhorn South. He averaged 18.6 points, 3.9 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.8 steals per game.
6-6, 215 | Freshman | Forward | St. Louis, Mo.
Davis is out this season after tearing his Achilles during fall practice.
6-6, 205 | Freshman | Guard | Frederick, Md.
Harris is the true freshman most likely to immediately contribute this season. Harris can defend positions one through four. His jumper will determine how much he see’s the floor.
6-10, 215 | Freshman | Forward | Springfield, Neb.
Heiman is Nebraska’s one in-state scholarship freshman. He’s Nebraska’s first in-state high school enrollee since 2001. As a four-year starter at Platteview, Heiman scored 1,315 points, racked up 883 rebounds and blocked 523 shots.
6-6, 207 | Senior | Guard | Upper Marlboro, Md.
Nebraska’s best player in years, Palmer is a returning All-Big Ten first-team guard. The senior sniffed the NBA but decided to return for one more year. He averaged 17.2 points, 4.4 rebounds and 3.0 assists as a junior.
6-9, 230 pounds | Junior | Forward | Dixon, Illinois
Roby is a key cog in Nebraska's machine. The junior recorded a double double in Nebraska's exhibition and could do that consistently this season for the Huskers. The owner of a 7-foot-1 wingspan, he’s a potential All-Big Ten player.
6-6, 206 | Sophomore | Guard | Reykjavik, Iceland
Thorbjarnarson appeared in nine games as a freshman and was 3 for 7 from the floor. He’ll likely play cleanup duty this year and will look to contribute more as a junior and senior.
6-3, 194 | Junior | Guard | Omaha
Trueblood has appeared in 17 games in his two seasons on the team. The backup point guard won’t be a huge factor this season.
6-3, 180 | Senior | Guard | Bellwood, Ill.
The final of the "Fab Four," Watson is a four-year starter and Tim Miles’ eyes and ears on the court. Watson’s production dropped a bit as a junior, averaging 10.5 points, 3 rebounds and 3 assists per game. Miles is hoping Watson has a year more like his sophomore season, when he scored 13 a game and shot nearly 40 percent from 3-point range.
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6-4, 195 | Sophomore | Wing | Charlotte, N.C.
It could be a breakout year for the Charlotte product. He worked all summer with that in mind, motivated by the fact Creighton will need a new go-to scorer. Now he's ready to step up.
6-5, 205 | Sophomore | Wing | Eudora, Kan.
He was sidelined this summer following groin surgery, but he’s back now. And because of his understanding of CU’s system and feel for the game, Ballock projects as a do-it-all glue guy for this squad.
6-7, 205 | Freshman | Forward | Lee's Summit, Mo.
Bishop appears to have a spot in CU’s rotation. He’s impressed with his ability to fearlessly attack the basket, absorbing contact with his strength or using his agility to evade defenders.
5-10, 155 | Freshman | Point guard | Topeka, Kan.
The walk-on from Topeka, Kansas, projects to be a valuable contributor in practice at point guard. His confidence seems to have grown since his arrival in the summer.
6-5, 200 | Senior | Wing | Lincolnshire, Ill.
The graduate transfer from Rice has settled in after joining the program in August. He had plenty to learn, but Cashaw’s temperament and experience has helped him adjust. He’ll add depth.
6-11, 225 | Sophomore | Center | Melbourne, Australia
He spent the summer adding strength after getting a brief taste of Division-I competition late last year. Creighton will benefit from Epperson’s above-the-rim presence as a scorer and shot blocker.
7-0, 230 | Freshman | Center | Townsville, Australia
The Australian, aided by his international basketball experience, looked like a veteran in his first sampling of Division-I practices. Froling could be an X-factor for Creighton.
6-5, 200 | Sophomore | Wing | East Chicago, Ind.
He spent his sit-out year working on his jump shot, and the results are evident. The transfer from New Mexico appears to be well suited for the Jays’ small-ball lineup.
6-3, 185 | Senior | Wing | Nashua, N.H.
The Jays moved Joseph from point guard to wing, and the position switch appears to be accentuating his skill set. Creighton could use a consistent spark from him off the bench this year.
6-9, 235 | Junior | Forward | Grosuplje, Slovenia
He looks like his old self after spending the offseason recovering from an ACL tear. Even a nasty ankle sprain last month couldn’t slow him down. Krampelj’s versatility as a scorer and a defender will be huge for CU.
6-5, 235 | Junior | Guard | Oviedo, Fla.
The offseason addition of Mahoney didn’t generate a ton of national buzz, but the Southeast Missouri State transfer has a Big East body and a consistent jump shot. He’ll redshirt this season, per NCAA rules.
6-3, 185 | Junior | Point guard | Charlotte, N.C.
He’s logged more in-game minutes in a Bluejay uniform than anyone else on the roster, so Mintz is expected to take on a larger scoring role. He could be one of CU’s better perimeter defenders, too.
6-2, 200 | Junior | Wing | Dedham, Mass.
Creighton awarded Scurry a one-year scholarship midway through last season for his impact on the team. He’s logged 88 career minutes, but his role behind the scenes matters a lot.
6-2, 180 | Freshman | Point guard | Hamilton, Mass.
His vision, pace and competitiveness should make the Massachusetts product a worthy complement to starter Davion Mintz. The future is bright for Zegarowski.