Courtside in the Summertime: Previewing The Basketball Tournament

posted by Dan Pfeifer -

Wait a minute … Marquette Courtside? In the middle of summer? Aren’t I supposed to be at a Lakeshore Chinooks game?

Answers: Yes. Yes. I’ll be there tonight. But there’s Marquette Basketball to discuss this week, too — or, rather, “Golden Eagles Alumni” Basketball.

The Basketball Tournament is a modern take on a basketball bracket, albeit a somewhat cutthroat and largely capitalistic one. Unlike college basketball, cold, hard cash is the big motivator. It’s a 72-team tournament where the overall wining team comes away with a prize of $2 million, up from $500,000 the in 2014, and everyone else walks away empty handed. Teams qualify by a few different means, though 16 got in by simply buying spots for a few thousand dollars, while four were put in “at large” due to having the most attention-worthy background stories in the eyes of the tournament organizers —sponsors pay part of the bills, and sponsors like eyeballs. The majority of teams, however, got in because fans provided “support” in the form of online registration points, which could be earned through fans registering or, of course, bought.

On one hand, it’s virtually the opposite of the amateurism the NCAA supposedly espouses. However, in a sign of how much that so-called virtue matters to college fans (it doesn’t), many teams who get in The Basketball Tournament do so with the support of a well-connected general manager who can organize a team of recent alumni from his school who are living on the fringes of professional basketball, as well as a decent campaign to have the college’s fans get the team qualified.

At Marquette, that GM is Dan Fitzgerald, a fan-favorite forward from 2005-08 who now works for Marquette Athletics after a seven-year international pro career and some time as vice president of a wealth management firm. According to his bio on GoMarquette.com, Fitzgerald advised professional athletes in his time in finance, and that’s clearly helped him stay in touch with many of the players who wore Marquette blue and gold either with or after him.

It was in 2016 that Fitzgerald first organized the “Golden Eagles Alumni” team. Given Marquette fans’ high level of activity on Twitter, it wasn’t long before Marquette was near the top of the fan-support charts. The 2016 Golden Eagles Alumni team made it to The Basketball Tournament’s version of the Elite Eight before falling to a team of alumni from Bradley. The same fate befell the team last year, though, in what can perhaps be considered the long-awaited make-up game for the 2012 Carrier Classic, it was the Ohio State alumni who knocked them out.

Given the interest the Marquette team has drawn, some were surprised when there wasn’t much effort to drum up votes for a 2018 team. Then came word: None was needed because the tournament and BIG EAST Conference developed a partnership in which Marquette would host a conveniently seeded “BIG EAST Pod,” along with the Marquette team and alumni from St. John’s (“The Johnnies”), Seton Hall (“Hall In”) and Georgetown (“Jack Attack”, named for the Hoyas’ admittedly adorable bulldog mascot).

The teams have some star power. Georgetown’s GM is Patrick Ewing, Jr., and its team has 2015 BIG EAST Preseason Player of the Year D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera. Jack Attack will open up against Hall In and Khadeen Carrington at 2 p.m. Saturday. Marquette will play afterward against a St. John’s team that reflects how the Red Storm has fallen off the map since the Lou Carnesecca days. The winners of those two games will do battle at 1 p.m. on Sunday.

Marquette’s team appears to be rightly ranked as the highest-seeded team in the pod, given its NBA ties. All-time leading Marquette scorer and one-time Suns’ guard Jerel McNeal returns, along with dynamic former Lakers’ and 76ers’ guard Darius Johnson-Odom and Clippers’ big man Jamil Wilson. The best of the many Diener kin who have been a part of basketball in Wisconsin, five-year NBA pro Travis, is also on the Marquette roster. Leaping human highlight reel Trend Blackledge joins him, as well as a guy who never reached his full potential at Marquette, but showed a big-time shooters’ touch when I saw him in the Milwaukee Summer Pro-Am, Jake Thomas. Teams are allowed to purchase additional roster spots (at $1,000 apiece), and it appears Marquette has done so, adding non-Marquette alums like UWM’s Brett Prahl and Cinmeon Bowers, who attended Rufus King and played for Bruce Pearl and Auburn his final two years of college.

The tournament uses some unique rules — nine-minute quarters, six fouls per player, etc. — but most are fairly trivial, save one: The Elam Ending. Invented by Ball State professor and Mensa International member Nick Elam, it purports to eliminate intentional fouling at the end of a game by setting a target score seven points higher than the leading team’s score at the first stoppage in the final four minutes. Once the target score is set, the game clock is removed from the picture, and the first team to reach the target wins. Basketball pundits are salivating over the Elam Ending, as it makes for quicker games and ensures “walk-off” points to conclude the contest. The only flaw is the elimination of any Christian Laettner-like game-ending buzzer-beaters. Let’s remember, however, no one liked Laettner, anyway.

Even with that innovation, The Basketball Tournament feels a little like carnival-game basketball. There’s a big, hard-to-get prize. Parts of the game feel set up against certain participants — Marquette getting to host a pod feels like a distinct advantage. And, just like a carnival game, the more you pay, the higher your chances of winning. Still, nostalgia is a powerful thing, and surely the games will bring at least a few curious fans to The Al, if only to see some of Marquette’s past stars in a setting slightly more-serious than the Pro-Am (which will probably feature current Marquette players again and should take place in July — keep an eye on the tournament’s admittedly janky website for details). Plus, ticket sales at The Al are benefiting the MACC Fund, so you dosome good if you attend.

I, personally, plan on covering Saturday’s games in the usual Marquette Courtside Twitterific manner at @MUPfeif. Sunday is promised to my wife and Summerfest as we celebrate the anniversary of my marriage proposal on the Skyglider, so I won’t be there for the second round. Still, I’m expecting it to be interesting basketball. We’ll see what happens.

COURTSIDE SPLINTERS

NEXT WEEK? NEXT WEEK: I like keeping a regular schedule, so look for another column next week talking about the TBT and what might be to come for whoever emerges from the BIG EAST Pod.

Photo: Getty Images

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