Apr 05, 2016

Men in Black Help Longhorn Basketball Women Sharpen Their Game

Reporting Texas

Merrin Matthew bodied up the ball handler for the University of Texas at Austin basketball team. His two teammates were equally busy during a three-on-three game at the Frank Erwin Center. Matthews’ friend Terry Woodard defended the post. Marcus Edwards guarded the wing. A whistle blew.

Edwards reached down to help up the person he had knocked to the floor: all 5-feet-4 of Brooke McCarty, a guard.

Every practice this past season, five to 10 men at UT-Austin put on jerseys to scrimmage against the Longhorn women’s basketball team in a demonstration of gender equality. Matthew, Woodard, Edwards and the others formed the women’s practice squad to tussle as though a championship was at stake.

“My first practice, I had scratches all over my body,” Matthew said. “Last practice, I thought I might have gotten a concussion from an elbow. They don’t care we are guys, and it doesn’t matter they are girls.”

The men attended every practice. Although their black jerseys said Texas, they were the opposition in every drill.

“We have them around because they allow us to focus on ourselves,” head coach Karen Aston said.

The men are  known as the Blacks due to their distinctive jerseys. At each practice, they played the role of the upcoming opponent on the schedule. At the beginning of practice, as the women warmed up on one half of the court, assistant coach George Washington walked to the other side and yelled, “Where my guys at?”

The Blacks assembled around Washington as he assigned positions and names.

“We have 10 minutes to learn the other teams’ plays, tendencies, ins and outs,” said Ryan Wright, a former practice squad member. “If you can’t learn on the fly, you can’t play.”

The practice began informally. Jody Conradt, who coached the team from 1976 to 2007, said her teams would scrimmage with some male chemistry professors at Gregory Gym back in the 1970s. Former player Fran Harris recalls scrimmaging with men playing “noon ball” in the 1980s. By her junior year, she said, the “practice guys” nearly had become regulars.

This past season, the men had to learn new offenses. Washington assigned each member of the Blacks a player from the opposing team he was supposed to represent and play like. At one practice, somebody represented Alexis Jones, Baylor’s best three-point shooter who also is prone to forcing passes. Later that week, the same person had to play like Brittney Martin of Oklahoma State, a guard who plays with more of an interior style.

Longhorn Imani Boyette, who has stood at 6-foot-7 since she was 13 years old, said she was accustomed to playing with men.

“Guys are stronger than girls,” she said. “Guys play quicker than girls. Playing with them gives you more confidence. If you can stop a guy, then playing against girls seems a little easier.”

Each practice drill and scrimmage was highly competitive. The Blacks swore they won most of the time. The women said the same. Their relationship resembled that of brothers and sisters. They beat each other up and viciously attacked the other, but in the end they worked for the team’s success.

“I’m dependent on these guys,” Aston said. “In this business, you don’t want to get comfortable. These guys make sure the team isn’t comfortable.”

The Longhorns finished the regular season with 29-3 and made it to the Elite Eight in the NCAA tournament, where they lost to the University of Connecticut, 85-65. The women on the team and the coaching staff deserve the credit. But part of the success went to the Blacks.

“They run the sets they learn really well,” Boyette said. “The stuff they run looks really similar to what we see in the game.”

Not just anyone can join the Blacks. The members must be good enough to keep up with Division I athletes. To find prospects, Washington searches student gyms for skilled players to recruit with promises of a chance to play competitive basketball, food and Nike gear. Most join the team for another reason: opportunity.

Blaine Bowman, who was a  practice squad member from 2013 to 2015, earned a graduate assistant coaching job with the Longhorn staff.

“Joining the practice squad gets you into the sports world,” Bowman said. “It’s a networking opportunity to develop deeper relationships.”

Matthew and Wright also joined to get into coaching. Edwards joined with the idea of a future in kinesiology, hoping that working with the women’s team would provide real-life application. A few former players were even able to win walk-on spots on the men’s team after practicing with the women.

“This opens doors for them,” Washington said. “It gets them in contact with people they never would have been in contact with.”

On that day at the Erwin Center, when practice ended, members of the Blacks hung around the players. On one end of the court, Wright and Matthew played McCarty and an assistant coach in a three-point shootout. On the other end, members of both teams talked about life outside of basketball.

“I feel like I’m a part of the team,” Matthew said. “I’m invested. I watch every game.”