To the average fan, the four IU students walking across Branch McCracken Court might as well have been randomly selected from the student section and handed matching shirts. Their faces, while well-known to IU women’s basketball players and staff, are unfamiliar to Hoosier nation. Even longtime PA announcer Chuck Crabb’s storied Assembly Hall boom can only give their names so much weight.
Four of 14, they make up the majority of the seniors on IU Coach Teri Moren’s male practice team — the “black squad” — a special branch of the basketball family that sweats each week alongside her Hoosiers.
The aftermath of IU’s seventh straight Big Ten win is a celebratory one. Tyra Buss and Amanda Cahill just combined to hang 53 points on Nebraska on senior day, and Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall will soon run their tribute videos.
But for the first time on senior day during Moren’s tenure, graduating black squad members are getting their own moment. Near half court the coaching staff thanks them one by one. This isn’t forced pageantry. Each embrace is genuine.
Some were born to wear candy stripes. None could stay off the court. Every practice player has their own story, some intertwining, for how they found out about the male practice squad IU’s women’s basketball program uses, and each one understands their role is to make the team better.
This band of brothers, named after the practice jerseys they wear, don’t get the recognition the coaches and student-athletes think the group deserves, but no one joined in the hopes of a little fame or the chance to be recognized on senior day.
“Our black squad does this really just out of the love that they have for the game, the kindness of their hearts that they want to help us,” Moren said. “Those guys are our friends, we consider them a part of our family, and I coach them up sometimes just as hard as I coach up our group.”
The program aims for about half the practice squad to show up to each practice, a time commitment of about 10 to 15 hours each week, depending on the team’s schedule and each student’s availability. Ashley Williams, IU’s first-year graduate assistant in charge of the group, values their commitment and effort. Physical skill and basketball IQ are great, but if no one shows up, none of that matters.
The logic behind a male practice team is if Moren’s student-athletes can guard guys who are bigger, stronger and more athletic, they should be able to guard the women they play against. However, it’s not a free-for-all.
“There are a couple guys who are really fast or really big or really strong, just not realistic for any type of female player that we’re going to see,” Williams said. “So there are definitely times where I have to go, ‘Hey, maybe tone it down, go 70 percent today.’”
But, if IU is facing a shot blocker like Purdue’s Ae’Rianna Harris, one of the nation's leading rim protectors, Williams will tell a practice player like Austin Halcomb to swat what he can. Halcomb often scouts opposing bigs. If a guard is a shooting threat, someone like Seth Cooley or Tanner Farmwald won’t hesitate on an open jumper.
“We have a lot of teams that are similar to them who are very athletic. It helps us,” junior forward Kym Royster said. “We get used to that. It helps us handle pressure.”
Williams has her scouts come to practice about 20 minutes early so they can learn plays IU’s next opponent runs while the team is watching film. Moren likes to keep things moving in practice. Halcomb and the rest’s ability to soak up what Williams teaches allows that to happen.
Sometimes, at games, black squad members will sit together and watch opponents run the plays they practiced.
“It’s amazing,” Halcomb said. “They’ll set up in a certain set and we just look at each other and go, ‘Oh yeah, this is what they’re going to do. This is exactly how the play is going to go.’”
They do not get animated much during games, though. Since they are around the program so much, when the clock is running they let the likes of Buss and Cahill do their own thing.
“We know that they can handle themselves,” Halcomb said. “They don’t need us cussing and screaming.”
When Buss got tangled up with a Nebraska player Sunday and stayed down with an apparent injury, the guys did not gasp or worry the Hoosiers’ star guard might be out for the game. Instead, they took bets on what would happen next, and Matt Siegel correctly predicted Buss would miss a minute or two and be right back in the game.
They know better than most how tough and physical the Hoosiers are. Sam Scherry, who couldn’t make it to senior day but is a three-year black squad veteran and senior like those recognized Sunday, has scouted opponents at nearly every position and isn’t surprised when he comes home bruised. Farmwald remembers Buss knocking the wind out of him the first practice he went to because he half-heartedly tried for a rebound.
“Oh my gosh,” Farmwald thought. “This is how it’s going to be.”
He’s not just a body, though. Neither are his black squad teammates. They develop friendships, find time to have side conversations during practice and hang out with the team outside the gym. Buss is not just the program’s all-time leading scorer to Farmwald. Halcomb tries to make people laugh. He can tell when they are exhausted.
Friends, family and others have had mixed reactions when they find out about the practice squad. Some are curious and intrigued by the opportunity to play inside Assembly Hall. Others are confused that guys are playing against a Division I women’s basketball team. A few are rude.
“That’s so stupid, why would you waste your time doing that for free?” one person asked Scherry.
Farmwald does not think people know enough about the concept of a male practice team. With a significant group of seniors graduating and spots to fill, the program has to change that.
“We’re going to have to go out and rebuild,” Williams said. “We’re definitely going to have to do better about getting it out there and being transparent about what the black squad really is, what we’re asking of these guys.”
Ashley Williams stands close to half court in Assembly Hall.
The Hoosiers are close to the end of a Friday practice in February, and less than 24 hours remain before Tyra Buss and Amanda Cahill will guide the team to a senior day victory against Nebraska.
“Rolls-Royce,” Williams shouts.
It’s one of a handful of plays the Hoosier coaching staff knows the Cornhuskers will run, although likely using a different name. IU’s defensive set holds and the five on the floor for the black squad regroup.
“Jelly,” Williams orders.
Down on the block Kym Royster holds her ground as Austin Halcomb, this afternoon playing as if he’s Nebraska’s 6-foot-5 freshman center, tries to post up. Royster bodies him a couple feet away from basket as Halcomb catches a pass, turns and shoots.
The shot bounces off the rim, and Royster, who had been struggling to keep Halcomb from establishing position, grabs the rebound. Halcomb pats her on the back.
“Black team, when you run Rolls-Royce, run it,” assistant coach Glenn Box says. “Screen, we want to work on the action. Be tough on them.”
Williams gives black squad’s point guard a couple pointers. During practices she wants to challenge Royster and the rest of the team so when games tip off Williams doesn’t lack any confidence in their preparation. At that point she’ll be firmly on the Hoosiers’ side, but right now she’s the guys’ coach, and everyone on Branch McCracken Court is a competitor.
She's cheering for them.