Behind the scenes, Ohio State's student managers persevere to keep men's basketball season rolling

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State student manager Mike Mastroianni, in red shorts, prepares to grab a rebound during a shootaround before a game against Indiana on Feb. 13.

The “dressed and ready” alert text is sent out as it always has been.

Whenever the Ohio State men’s basketball team is supposed to practice, the managers have a set time they are expected to be on the court at Value City Arena to make sure everything is ready to go, which is communicated through a daily text message from a program staffer.

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That much hasn’t changed. The same goes for duties whenever the Buckeyes get their day underway.

In fact, the daily grind of practice has represented the biggest semblance of normalcy for the Ohio State manager crew, which continues to chug along and make the program run while coping with all of the changes that the coronavirus pandemic has thrown at it.

“Once practice starts, it’s a pretty normal year as far as practice goes, besides the masks and distancing,” said fourth-year senior manager Mike Mastroianni, who summed up the managers’ role this way: “Making sure we’re ready for the next drill, making sure things run smoothly for the staff and our players.”

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Most everything else, however, has changed for the unsung heroes of the program. The hoops that need jumped through and obstacles that must be navigated just to get on the court for practice are a lot to ask of players whose highlights can end up on “SportsCenter,” much less the guys who mop up their sweat when the cameras are off.

While some programs have opted to make do without managers this season in order to cut down on potential infections on the roster, Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann decided early on that the risk of having a contingent of 15 managers far outweighed any possible negative outcomes.

From left, managers Mike Mastroianni, Bryce Hawkins, Tyler Hicks and John McCausland sit behind Chris Holtmann at a Jan. 31 game against Michigan State, ready to assist wherever needed.

“I wouldn’t trade them for anyone,” he said. “They are absolutely vital to the success of our day-to-day operations and overall program success. In a year like this with the pandemic, we have needed them and appreciated them more than ever.”

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Ohio State has 30 slots for its Tier 1 individuals inside its daily testing protocols, a figure that includes players, coaches and anyone who has physical contact with the players.

Of those 30, between three to five managers are included, and the number can vary because individuals who test positive and complete their quarantine process are free from testing for 90 days. Multiple managers have tested positive throughout this season, taking them out of the daily testing protocols and allowing someone else to take their place.

Those who aren’t being tested daily are categorized as Tier 2. They are tested the day before and the day of games and are given jobs such as controlling the game clock, wiping the floors or doing work in the video room during practices. On gamedays, they are instructed to arrive as close as five or 10 minutes before tip and depart shortly after “Carmen Ohio” is played.

A manager applauds Ohio State players as they take the floor for a Jan. 31 game against Michigan State.

Social distancing measures and mask-wearing are mandatory at all times, regardless of tiers, the primary goal being to ensure that a positive test for a manager wouldn’t result in players being sidelined due to contact tracing.

“Some have been in quarantine multiple times, so they’ve missed a lot and that’s very hard, but they understand we’ve got to keep this team safe and keep playing,” said Dave Egelhoff, the team’s director of basketball operations. “All of these managers, each of them does not want to be a guy who counts towards possibly shutting the team down.”

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Unlike in previous years, a full complement of managers isn’t expected every day at practice. Egelhoff said the managers have been hyper-vigilant about self-policing and reporting any potential interactions that could result in a positive test or contact trace, even to the point that the medical staff has allowed continued participation because the perceived contact has been so minimal.

“Every move that you make outside of being at basketball and being at the Schott with the team, you kind of have to think twice about,” said Mastroianni, from McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania. “It’s definitely something that early in the year it was on a lot of our minds, but as we’ve gone on, it’s kind of become a new normal and part of our regular life now.”

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After doing this for three years already, Mastroianni said he can’t imagine college without his role as a manager. He feels for the freshmen this year who won’t get the full experience, the times spent hanging out in the locker room or playing against each other after practice. The traditional games against managers from opposing schools have been canceled this season.

Senior manager Mike Mastroianni hands the ball to walk-on Jansen Davidson as part of a layup drill before a recent game against Indiana.

“Obviously it’s looked a lot different and we may not be able to do the things we’ve always done away from basketball together, but I don’t think that takes away from how close this group is,” Mastroianni said. “Then this year, we really understood and kind of owned that it’s not necessary for all of us to be here. We, more than anyone else, want this season to go on and want our guys to be able to play.”

With less than three weeks until Selection Sunday, so far, so good.

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy