Gophers manager is ready for his own version of March Madness

A college hoops season Drew Evenson will never forget kept rolling after the Gophers men's basketball team pulled off a first-round victory Tuesday against Butler in the NIT.

Evenson didn't throw any passes to leading scorer Dawson Garcia or add to Elijah Hawkins' record-setting assist numbers, but "he's as big a part of this team as anybody," Gophers coach Ben Johnson said.

Evenson is the team's lead student manager. His quiet cancer battle provided inspiration during a turnaround season for the Gophers, who play Sunday at Indiana State in the NIT second round.

Evenson didn't need to be part of the action to be a person everyone leaned on for courage and strength. He keeps showing up with a smile and welcomes hard work.

Knowing the journey with this team didn't end last week meant a lot to Evenson, who appreciated the kind words from players, coaches, and fellow managers while he went through treatment this season.

"Their support meant the world to me," said Evenson, who was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in high school. "Throughout the season you go through it together. When you get hit with adversity, the best way is to face it with other people."

Johnson's team definitely wanted to be there on Evenson's special day when he rang the bell at the end of his leukemia treatment at U's Masonic Children's Hospital on Feb. 2.

"We say C2F, which stands for commitment to family," Evenson said. "We're together all of the time, so it was pretty cool to share that moment with them as well."

The Gophers grew close during Evenson's cancer treatment and strengthened an important aspect of the culture Johnson built.

Johnson's definition of a winner is echoed through what the Gophers call the "Big Warrior" — someone honored as team MVP after each game with a mock championship wrestling belt. It doesn't always go to the top statistical performer.

Evenson was given the warrior belt as team MVP following his bell-ringing ceremony, which seemed like a no-brainer for Johnson and the players. They witnessed Evenson as a warrior all season, Johnson said.

"We can talk about winning games and the importance of that," Johnson said earlier this season. "You talk about having to be a warrior in life every single day. To me that's the ultimate warrior. If anybody deserves the belt, it's that guy."

Much of the credit for the Gophers having a 10-win improvement from last season has gone to coaches and players, but Johnson explained that progress comes with everyone in the program.

"Every single person," Johnson said. "Staff, support staff and managers. This doesn't work if not everybody is two feet in and working at a high level. That's what we're trying to do to continue to develop and grow."

A big step for growth going into next season will be if the Gophers can continue an NIT run beyond Sunday against Indiana State, but they aren't the only members of the team trying to advance in March Madness.

Behind the scenes in college basketball, it's customary for team managers to play basketball against the other teams' managers the night before a game. The Gophers' managers are having their own special season and drew the No. 1 overall seed in the 64-team Manager Games, which started this week. They can earn a chance to compete at the Final Four in Phoenix this year with a fan voting process during the actual NCAA tournament.

Evenson, who plays for the manager team, said, "This group of guys works extremely hard every day. We get to shine the night before games and try to go out and win. Some of our games have been very close and competitive. We take a lot of pride in going undefeated."

On the players and managers trying to win a championship together this March, Evenson added: "It's great that we still have something to play for."