It's into hour three of a University of Connecticut women's basketball practice in Storrs, Conn. Coach Geno Auriemma is not happy. One of his 15 practice squad players, an unheralded sophomore, keeps hitting jump shots over Maya Moore, the three-time All-American senior. "How the hell does that happen?" Auriemma asks. "Show us exactly what happened," he demands. "How did he get a jumper?"
That's right, he. The top-ranked Connecticut team is among the two-thirds of Division I women's basketball programs that practice against male players, according to a 2007 National Collegiate Athletic Assn. survey. University of Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, the all-time winningest coach in college basketball history, has used men since being hired at the school in 1974. Duke, Michigan, and UCLA also play against male teams, as do about half of Women's National Basketball Assn. teams. Auriemma started using men shortly before his first UConn championship in 1995 when Greg Yeomans, who later walked onto the men's team, and some of his friends came to a practice. Auriemma liked what he saw, and since then he says men have been "one of the most important aspects of our program."
Because men, at least those who gravitate to competitive round ball, are generally built bigger, stronger, and faster than women, teams use them as a form of overload training. It's like wearing ankle weights when running. "As far as the speed and the strength, you're not going to find teams better," Moore says, comparing the UConn practice squad with her game-day opponents. "We have to have something extra to keep up with them."
If it weren't for the guys, starters would practice against bench players, who, as a rule, are not as good as the first team. Plus, from a coach's point of view, the guys are the managerial dream of expendable labor. "We don't have to be worried about whether they are going to be ready to play," says Auriemma. "We just do whatever we want with them, and they love it. You tell them to play defense for an hour, they play."
The men's incentives are less obvious, other than having a story to tell their friends in 15 years. NCAA rules prohibit them from receiving financial assistance for participating, so the most they are allowed to get is practice apparel. At UConn, where Nike (NKE) is spending $46 million over 10 years to outfit teams, practice players get shoes, Dri-FIT undershirts, socks, shorts, jerseys, and the occasional sweat suit and jacket. Still, there have got to be easier ways to get sneakers than devoting up to 15 hours a week practicing with a team that will never let you into a game. So why do it?
"Playing every day, you can't give that up," says senior Eric Carroll. Practice players are usually hoops junkies who played in high school but were doomed by the same genetic coding that makes them ideal practice fodder: They weren't big, strong, and fast enough to hack Division I ball. "Playing basketball your whole life and then coming to a Division I school where you're not a Division I basketball player, you sort of go through withdrawal," says senior Stephen Mahier. "You can play pickup all you want, but being part of a team is something that I really miss."
UConn wants its practice squad to feel like a team. Matt Gade, a 24-year-old graduate student and former practice player, took over the squad in 2009. "When I started it was kind of a word-of-mouth thing," he says. "It was pretty much a bunch of bums." The players wore their own gear and showed up sporadically. Since then he has formalized the process. With women's team assistant coach Shea Ralph, he scouts at intramural games and brings in prospective players for preseason workouts. Auriemma, who has final squad oversight, says he looks for "guys that don't have an ego—guys who don't come out here and then go home and say, 'Hey, I blocked Maya Moore's shot five times.' "
Chest-pounding ego gratification is out of the question. So is some of the physical play associated with the men's game. Shot-blocking, for instance, is often limited since few of UConn's opponents feature defenders who do it often. But for the most part, the men compete with the women on level terms. ("If one of them hits me in the mouth or something, it's on," Moore says.) Congratulatory pats on the butt after good plays even go in both directions during practice.
The camaraderie carries over off the court. The men and women hang out around campus, including at a team-sponsored pumpkin carving in the fall. Though none of the guys would 'fess to any romances. ("Probably a lot of guys on the practice team wish," says Mahier.) Off the floor, the men also get a chance to bask in reflected glory: Last April, during the women's Final Four in San Antonio, 10 of them flew out to watch the team play.
Still, the cachet of the practice squad is limited. Mahier's friends poke fun at him regularly. "I would love to see you come out here and guard Maya for one play, let alone a whole practice," he tells them. This is another thing the practice guys get: rare insight into the gender gap. It can be an eye-opening experience. "Everybody thinks, guys vs. girls, we're automatically going to win," says Mahier, "which is completely not the case, because I get my ass kicked day in and day out." For Auriemma, it's one more reason to have the men around. "They help spread the gospel to all the guys out there."
It's a stark role reversal for a group of guys who were often at the top of the social hierarchy in high school. This is something not lost on Maya Moore. "The coolest part is the humility," she says, "because I know in our society, if a girl beats you ..." Auriemma even sees altruism. "They love making our players better," he says, "which they know they're doing." And the sneakers aren't bad. "All my friends are flabbergasted as I come in with new shoes," says Mahier, "They're like, 'Dude!' "