Word spread quickly through the ranks of Big Ten men's basketball student managers within hours after Maryland had played — and won — its first game at Michigan State.
Joe Baker, a junior who is the head manager at Purdue, saw a message on a group text that the Terps' team of managers included Juan Dixon, the former All-American who is now a special assistant to Maryland coach Mark Turgeon.
"I was thinking we should get some shots up or have some practices," Baker joked.
In joining the Big Ten this season, Maryland has embraced a new tradition — games between the managers and support staffs of the actual men's basketball teams who play in the same arenas the next day.
Rules for these managers games vary, though most are 40 minutes long (plus overtime if needed) and they can appear as intense as the real games. What was once a loosely organized and largely ignored activity for a few basketball-centric schools in the Big Ten has grown to include nearly the whole conference.
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas did his part getting the message out, recently tweeting what amounted to a scouting report on the Michigan State managers. Dan Dakich, who played for Bob Knight at Indiana and also works as an analyst for ESPN, has called it "one of the best traditions" in the league.
Friday night, hours before the 14th-ranked Terps play host to Michigan State in a rematch of Maryland's 66-64 double overtime win in its Big Ten debut, the managers and support staffs from the schools will meet at Xfinity Center. The Spartans' managers will be looking to avenge an 11-point defeat last month in East Lansing.
Kevin Pauga, the basketball operations director at Michigan State, said that getting a rematch with Dixon and the Terps is "part of the benefit of being able to play them home-and-home. We'll see if we can get that win at Maryland for our RPI."
For the managers, these games provide an outlet from the work they do behind the scenes to help their program.Typically, Big Ten teams carry between 10 and 15 student managers, with a handful working both home and road games. Their normal duties including setting up and cleaning up after practice and games, videotaping and breaking down practice and game film and helping run other events such as coaching clinics and fundraisers.
Dixon has tried to keep a low profile, in part to help give the Terps a competitive edge. Michigan State head manager Scott Besko recalled how Dixon tried to hide his identity after the managers introduced themselves before their game on Dec. 29.
"It was hilarious," Besko said. "He got to Breslin [Center] and came down to the main floor and he said, 'I'm Jake, nice to meet you.'
"I said, 'Jake from State Farm? C'mon man, I know who you are. You were my favorite player growing up as a kid.'"
Along with Dixon, the Maryland team has also included former Terp role players Logan Aronhalt and John Auslander, both of whom are graduate assistants this season, as well as Kyle Tarp, the director of basketball performance who played football at UC-Davis.
"It's fun, get out here and communicate, get guys playing basketball the right way," Dixon said before last week's managers game at Purdue. "Hit a couple of jump shots, make some steals. Add on to my scoring [record] and my steals [he ranks second to Johnny Rhodes in Maryland history]. I'm having fun.
"I do want to win, though," Dixon added with a smile.
Dixon's new teammates feel the same way as his old ones did more than a decade ago. "No matter if we're playing rock, paper, scissors, we want to win," said Nima Omidvar, Maryland's first-year director of operations.
That was apparent during Maryland's 54-52 overtime win over Purdue last Friday night at an empty Mackey Arena.
Given the makeup of the team, comprised mostly of aspiring coaches, it was not surprising to see Dixon and his teammates running the same sets as Turgeon's Terps. Watching from the Purdue bench, student manager Joe Bower was impressed by this Big Ten newcomer.
"They're probably the best managers team I ever played," Bower said. "The most physical at least. It's not just [Dixon]. They do a good job screening, they're vocal on the defensive end. Especially in pickup basketball, if you talk and communicate that gives you a huge advantage. That's across the board."
While Dixon seemed more content directing his teammates to open shots than taking over, there were times when he looked just as focused as he did during his playing days, particularly when the game got tight after a 15-point halftime lead disappeared. He even continued playing after tweaking his ankle in the second half.
Dixon hit graduate assistant Steve Asher for a layup with 35 seconds left in overtime to put the Terps up one. Tarp then made a steal and student manager Mike Williams made one of two free throws before Purdue missed a last-ditch 3-pointer to give Maryland its second win in three games (they'd add another win over Rutgers on Tuesday).
Omidvar punched the air and let out a whoop when the buzzer sounded, just as his boss is known to do.
'Managers set the tone'
Turgeon keeps up with the results of the managers' games, which so far have served as a foretelling of what happens in the games the next day. The only loss for the managers has been against Illinois — Dixon went to sleep early and didn't play — and the real Terps lost the next night, too.
After his team beat Purdue on Saturday, Turgeon said, "The managers set the tone."
Purdue's Baker, who was matched up against Dixon for most of the night, said it was an interesting experience playing against the former Maryland star. Baker grew up a Purdue fan and remembers rooting against Indiana when the Hoosiers lost to the Terps in the 2002 NCAA title game.
"I definitely recognized the name. Now I know it a lot better after guarding him," said Baker, who resembles the actor Michael Cera. "In the game you're thinking, 'I'm guarding a great player and I've got to stop him.' It's more afterwards [when you think], 'I just guarded the Final Four MVP. I have something to tell my kids.' It was cool."
Ben Eidelberg, a McDonogh graduate who as a Maryland senior is now the team's head student manager, said playing with Dixon has gone from surreal "to almost normal."
"It's a little scary because 10 years ago that would have been unthinkable," said Eidelberg, who played a total of one varsity game in high school. "I guess I now take it for granted that I can walk out with the most historic player in Maryland history and play basketball with him."
If there is any regret for Eidelberg, it's that former Maryland manager Zach Lederer isn't around to play in the Big Ten games.
"I think he would have loved it," Eidelberg said of Lederer, who died in March after battling brain cancer for more than two years. "He was one of the most competitive people. We would play pickup after practice and he would be diving for loose balls."
As intense as the Purdue game got — Tarp and Auslander got into a few physical exchanges with Gavin Roberts, who played football for the Boilermakers — it never approached the level of last year's brawl between the managers from Duke and North Carolina, the only Atlantic Coast Conference schools that have regular manager games.
Michigan State's Pauga — who has been involved in the games since he started as a student manager in 2000 — said the managers from different schools share a certain kinship.
"At the end of the day, there's a level of respect," he said. "Everybody's working their tails off for their respective teams. You don't take a positon like that as a student manager without being a pretty hard worker and a good person, and that level of respect carries over."