With just under three minutes to go in the second half at Crisler Center, junior guard Jason Lansing checked into the game. He received a pass just beyond half court and paused for a few moments after he heard a familiar voice cry out from the bleachers.
As Lansing turned his head, he saw then-freshman wing Franz Wagner egging him on to shoot. Lansing turned his attention back to the court and obliged. As the shot hit nothing but nylon, he turned and saw Wagner celebrating with a few other Michigan men’s basketball players in the crowd.
Wagner, of course, is usually the one doing the shooting while Lansing spends his evenings at Crisler working as a manager under Michigan coach Juwan Howard, handling day-to-day responsibilities such as helping the team run drills and studying film. That night in January, though, the roles were reversed as the Michigan managers took on Penn State’s managers, ultimately picking up an easy victory to improve to 3-0 on the season and move one step closer to taking home the coveted Manager Games title.
“It’s a league that not many people know about,” Lansing, now a senior, said, “but it’s super competitive every night.”
The night before select Big Ten contests, the Michigan managers enter an empty arena and face off against the Wolverines’ opponent’s managers. The games are routinely competitive, and feature many players who have played high school basketball and, in some cases, can even dunk.
“I played in a pretty competitive league in high school,” junior manager Bennett VanSolkema said. “I’d say the manager games are just as competitive, if not even more.”
At the conclusion of regular season play, 64 manager squads are seeded into a bracket, with each matchup being determined by a Twitter poll. The final eight teams left are invited to that year’s Final Four, where they play out the remainder of the tournament at that weekend’s Fan Fest.
“We were the No. 1 seed last year, but obviously due to COVID we didn’t get to have a tournament,” Lansing said. “Hopefully we can keep that momentum going into this season and finish what we started.”
Despite the fact that the games are relatively unknown to fans, Michigan players and coaches have shown continued support and interest. Players have shown up to games to cheer their managers on, while Howard routinely checks in with his managers on the day of their contests to pump them up and offer words of encouragement. He’s even singled them out at the next day’s practice after a win to commend them for their efforts on the court.
“It’s really cool to see (Howard) take genuine interest,” VanSolkema said. “He’s just that type of guy.”
As the players and coaching staff have shown continued support for their managers over the years in an empty gym, they may soon find those roles reversed as the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are felt around Division I athletics.
With the prospect of no fans looming large this upcoming season, the Wolverines may find themselves in a similar situation to their managers during their own contests. While walking into and playing in an empty arena might be one that feels foreign to the players, it’s a feeling that never gets old for Lansing.
“One of the coolest things is walking into an arena the night before a game,” Lansing said. “You feel like you’re a player every time you make that walk through the tunnel. And, for 40 minutes, we are.”