Men’s basketball managers unable to maintain undefeated record


Photo Courtesy of Josh Larson

The Illini managers basketball team is off to a hot start this season. While the basketball team they manage struggles, the managers hold a top-10 ranking in the nation in the manager league.

By Will Gerard, Staff writer

While most students on campus prepared for their classes the Sunday evening after syllabus week, six men’s basketball managers engaged in fierce competition at Ubben Basketball Complex. A playlist of soft country music, featuring Kenny Chesney’s “When The Sun Goes Down,” echoed through the empty practice facility.

However, these students weren’t playing against one another at 9 p.m. The fifth-ranked manager team in the nation, according to the Jan. 19 “Kevin Pauga Index,” was actually in the midst of hosting the manager team from Michigan State, albeit without their “head coach/GM” calling plays from the sideline.

Head manager, and player-coach, Jack Liss – who has no relation to walk-on junior forward Cameron Liss – was with the team in spirit as he watched the game through a FaceTime call with another player.

Liss could not attend because of a tear he suffered a tear to his Achilles Heel while protecting the rim during a game of pick-up basketball with the other managers. Fortunately, for Liss the team’s trainer was still at the facility when the injury occurred.

He returned to work Wednesday after undergoing surgery on Jan. 10.

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Liss arranges the games through the manager Twitter account, a database with every head manager’s contact information or the Big Ten head manager group chat.

“Coach Liss is our head strategist, and I think he would have made some key substitutions,” Cliff Libman said. “He’s a cerebral guy, and we could have used his strategy tonight, that’s for sure.”

Liss charts offensive efficiency and keeps track of plays during the “real” Illinois games. He arranges the schedule for each manager, makes sure equipment is set up for before practice and operates the scoreboard during it. Liss also converts practice statistics to a spreadsheet for the coaching staff after practice.

On game day, he gets coffee for coaches, rebounds during shootaround and sets up chairs on the floor, in addition to “whatever else is needed.”

After each game, he helps edit the game film for a “good 2-3 hours” alongside graduate assistant, Grant Bell, and they create a report that’s ready for the coaches in the morning.

Liss is a senior, and he has been with the program since his freshman year. Liss decided that he wanted to manage the team during his junior year of high school at Manteno High School, which is the around the time he first noticed the Illinois managers working behind the bench during the iconic game in which Tyler Griffey scored a buzzer-beating layup to defeat No. 1-ranked Indiana in Champaign.

“I’ve always loved Illinois basketball,” Liss said. “I’ve had 11 relatives go here, so I knew I was going to come here for a while.”

Liss worked summer camps during the following summer and interviewed for the job the next September.

Back when he was in high school, Liss played four years of basketball, and two of those years were spent on varsity.

Liss interned for the summer league over the past two summers in pursuit of his dream, which is one day working as an NBA general manager.

His “assistant coach and head floor manager,” Blake Woodard, who is the team’s head video manager, operated the small scoreboard located on wall directly behind the opposite sideline.

Woodard works with the video coordinator to arrange clips for the team’s film study, which sometimes requires gathering footage from various other games across all levels.

It is not uncommon for a coach to even request an applicable clip from an NBA game.

Woodard rarely plays for the manager team, though he hit a major corner three on the road to end a major Vanderbilt scoring run on the road.

Freshman forward Xavier “X” Tillman, freshman guard Brock Washington and junior forward Kenny Goins occupied the Michigan State (2-6, 2-4 Big Ten) sideline, although there was an internal dispute among the players over their respective coaching responsibilities.

Michigan State’s manager team was led by former Spartan guard, Thomas “TK” Kelley, who played for Tom Izzo from 1994-1999.

Kelley was a member of Izzo’s first Final Four team, and he played 15 years overseas before returning to East Lansing as a graduate assistant in 2016.

It is not uncommon for a non-manager to step in when his team is on the road, and among the manager ranks, it is an accepted practice for staff members to dress when additional players are needed.

Two Spartan managers are from the state of Illinois, and they possessed a noticeable size-advantage over the pesky, “run and gun,” guard-oriented Illini lineup.

“We’re not the tallest squad, but Cliff shoot it lights out,” Liss said. “Really it’s just a matter of running the other team down because we have good stamina.”

For No. 5 Illinois (6-1, 4-1 Big Ten), manager Grant Bale and video coordinator Patrick Schulte are known to fill-in from time-to-time.

On Jan. 5, Schulte hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to secure a 62-60 victory over Michigan on the road in Ann Arbor.

Kelly was the difference-maker in this game, and he willed his team to victory on a number of pull-up jump shots off the dribble and crafty moves in the paint area.

Illinois held a 50-33 halftime lead behind a barrage of 3-pointers from senior sharpshooter Libman, though it was a tale of two halves for the host team.

“I think we choked on our open shots in the second half,” Libman said.

Following his graduation from Morton High School, similar to Liss, Libman joined the program the September of his freshman year after his brother put him in contact with a former video manager.

“I was a deep bench guy in high school, so I really love the chance to run up and down the floor during a game,” Libman said. “It’s really fun to play with people from out of town; it’s really just pick-up ball at the end of the day, but it feels more legit than that.”

Libman is always the “food guy” on game days, which requires him to order delivery food for the coaching staff and managers alike.

On Sunday, Libman planned to order DP Dough for the team before the game because they’re always looking for cheap delivery food.

During the regular season, the managers, put in, on average, 40 hours per week.

“The people you work with are what make it special,” Liss said. “The other managers are just the most selfless guys on campus; the time commitment isn’t for everyone, and I’m just happy that they’re helping me out.”

When Liss and Libman were freshmen, one of the team managers, Ryan Schmidt had the opportunity to dress in a game against Minnesota, though he still brought out the team chairs during a timeout in his uniform.

“It was really cool because he got national exposure,” Liss said. “We would give him a hard time because he went Hollywood; he was the nicest guy and really good at basketball, too.”

The Spartans came out firing in the second half, and they cut the Illini lead to three within the first five minutes of the running clock.

Typically, the clock runs during these games until the final two minutes of play and there is no shot clock (not that one was necessary with the pace of each team). Each half is 20 minutes long, and during this final stretch, two free-throws are awarded for shooting fouls, and any other personal fouls result in a one-and-one attempt.

Not long after watching what was once a 20-point lead disappear, Illini Patrick Althoff hustled off the floor because of a lost contact, while Mclain Engel subbed in hockey-style as play continued.

At around the 11-minute mark in the second half, fellow Michigan State graduate assistant, Sean Sheldon, threw down a thunderous two-handed dunk on a roll to the basket.

Sheldon, who is six-foot-nine, played four years for William & Mary before playing last season overseas in Sweden for BC Winterthur. Sheldon played only 13 games because of a shoulder injury, which ultimately ended his basketball career.

He averaged 8.5 and 4.8 rebounds per game during his senior season at William & Mary, and he started all 31 games.

Engel later responded with 3-pointers on consecutive possessions. His first attempt was a step-back shot off the dribble with 7:30 minutes left in the ballgame.

As the game came to a close, there was brief confusion over the score, but both teams settled on a 70-68 Spartan lead.

Shortly thereafter, the Spartans called their final timeout as they led 72-71 with 2:01 minutes left.

Engel hoisted several desperation threes, and one of his shots landed in the hands of Sheldon. Several Illini reached for ball, and it appeared that they may have created a jump ball opportunity, in spite of an arm being grabbed by a defender.

Rather than argue about the questionable call, Libman settled it playground style when he rattled in a 3-point attempt off the front rim.

Illinois was unable to capitalize after the change in possession, and Kelly converted the majority of his attempts at the free-throw line down the stretch as Michigan State secured a 79-73 victory.

Both teams gathered at half-court for a group picture at the conclusion of the game.

Yet, there wasn’t much time for either team to dwell over the result; Michigan State’s pregame shootaround was set for noon the next day.

“Win or lose, we just try to have fun,” Liss said. “It’s a really great resume builder.”


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