Jermaine Dixon (above) and The Untouchables are the No. 1 seed in this year's TBT Northeast Region. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
When The Basketball Tournament was first introduced in 2014, its name almost sounded like the beginning of an Abbott and Costello joke.
“Hey, have you heard about The Basketball Tournament?”
“Which basketball tournament?”
“THE Basketball Tournament.”
And so on.
But nobody’s laughing anymore.
For the fourth year in a row, The Basketball Tournament (TBT) comes to Philadelphia University -- now known as Thomas Jefferson University -- with it’s grand prize, a sparkling $2 million, awaiting the team which can survive six single-elimination games over the course of a month.
Jefferson plays host to the Northeast Region’s 16 teams for the first and second rounds of play; the four teams that advance to the “Super 16” will play again on July 20 in Brooklyn. The quarterfinals take place on July 23, also in Brooklyn, with the semifinals and championship taking place at Coppin State University on August 1 & 3.
Here’s a look at the opening round, which will take place Saturday; the second round will follow on Sunday:
1) FCM Untouchables vs. 16) OPI (11:00 AM)
In the world of college basketball, the 1 vs. 16 matchup doesn’t exactly scream “upset”: in the 132 games played between top seeds and low seeds in the NCAA Tournament, the top seeds are 132-0. But this is TBT, and with an imperfect seeding system based somewhat on reputation and professional experience, the field is much more wide-open. OPI proved that point well last year, when -- playing in the South Bracket -- it gave top-seeded Bluff City Blues a good scare, sticking within six points with under two minutes to play before losing by 11.
Named after a late friend of several of the players, OPI (Owen Patrick Iannotti) does boast some former Division I talent. The most recognizable name locally is former Penn State/Hofstra guard Taran Buie, a 6-2 guard from Albany, N.Y.; 6-7 forward Faronte Drakeford (CCSU) and 6-5 wing Jonathan Adams (ODU) -- who dropped 32 points last year -- also have D-I experience. Drakeford represents the tallest member of the team, however, and a number of former D-III guards might have some trouble against a very talented Untouchables squad.
This is sort of a continuation of the Untouchables from last year’s TBT, a Pitt alumni team which made it to the quarterfinals of the event. Former Pitt players Jermaine Dixon and Gil Brown, who both played last year, are coaching this time around, and they’ve recruited a variety of friends to play under the Untouchables banner. Antonio Graves (Pitt), Michael Green (Butler), Ricky Harris (UMass) and Marcus Hatten (St. John’s) make up a high-level backcourt of current Euro pros, while 6-8 wing Dewayne Jackson (Morgan State), 6-9 Gani Lawal (Georgia Tech), 6-7 Kyle Hines (UNC Greensboro) and 6-7 Cameron Clark (Oklahoma) give them size, ability and athleticism in the frontcourt. In short, this team is stacked. Don’t expect them to take OPI lightly after last year, and don’t expect this one to be very close.
8) Talladega Knights vs. 9) Paul Champions (9:15 AM)
It says quite a bit about the depth of this field that these two teams are seeded eighth and ninth in the Northeast region, as both have NBA talent on the roster, and not just a little bit here and there. So this should be quite the eye-opener to begin the 2017 TBT main bracket, for a number of reasons. Talladega Knights, named after the Will Ferrell movie for little reason other than an enjoyment of the film, is back after making it to the second round a year ago; Paul Champions bought an entry to the TBT Jamboree last month and won two games to qualify for the main bracket.
Talladega’s most recognizable name is perhaps Josh Boone, who played at UConn for three years before becoming the No. 23 overall pick in the 2006 NBA Draft, going on to play four years in the NBA before playing abroad the last seven, including spending this past year with the Hong Kong Eastern Long Lions; the 6-10 forward will play in Australia in 2017-18. In 2014, Boone’s squad lost to his now-teammate, Notre Dame alum Ty Nash in the TBT championship; also on the Knights are Dan Ross (Seton Hall), Cedric Oliver (Radford) and Manny Quezada (San Francisco), who scored 59 points in two TBT games last year.
There was no bigger sight to behold -- literally -- at the TBT Jamboree than Paul Champions’ Mamdou Ndiaye, the 7-6 center out of Cal-Irvine, as the Senegalese big man towered above the competition. The fact that he was paired with 5-6 Earl Boykins, the second-shortest player in NBA history, was even better. But they were clearly not just a spectacle, as Ndiaye, Boykins, former 76er Chuchu Maduabam and a cast that also includes Kenny Satterfield (Cincinnati), Shavar Richardson (Florida Atlantic), Mandell Thomas (Fordham), Andre Marhold (Duquesne) and more won its two games in Philly last month to earn another one in July.
5) Zoo Crew vs. 12) Sideline Cancer (2:30 PM)
While the Untouchables kept the name, the Pitt alumni spirit of the team lives on in the more aptly-named Zoo Crew, a homage to the Oakland Zoo student section which rings the Peterson Events Center for ever Pitt home game. And it’s certainly a Pitt squad: of the 10 players on the roster, nine of them played for and graduated from the University of Pittsburgh. But they won’t have anything close to an easy game to open up against a Sideline Cancer squad they faced in the opening around last year.
Sideline Cancer GM Billy Clapper has put together a group that’s fully capable of matching a Super 16 run from two years ago and perhaps bettering it, with five former Division I players and some high-level Division II alums leading the way. Most familiar to local fans will be St. Joe’s wing Aaron Brown, making his Sideline Cancer debut; Iowa power forward Jarryd Cole is back for his third year -- Sideline Cancer is one of just four teams to have played in all four TBTs -- along with Hawkeye teammate Anthony Clemmons, Penn State/Arizona State’s Jermaine Marshall and Illinois big man Maverick Morgan. The small-college talent brings a lot of length on the wings, including Seger Bonifant (West Liberty), Kevin Bracy-Davis (Davis & Elkins) and Duane Johnson (East Stroudsburg), all of whom stand 6-7.
The Pitt alumni of the Zoo Crew are largely a new group from the one that played last year, with only point guard Levance Fields returning from the former Untouchables. He’s got plenty of former teammates to work with, including fellow guards Ronald Ramon and Ashton Gibbs, two potent 3-point shooters who will be sharing a backcourt for the first time. Also back from the mid-2000 Pitt powerhouse teams is power forward Tyrell Biggs and shooting guard Keith Benjamin, plus wing John DeGroat, stretch-forward Levon Kendall and power forward Chevon Troutman. The only non-Pitt player on the team is Jesse Morgan, who played at UMass and then Temple.
4) Team FOE vs. 13) DC On Point (12:45 PM)
If you’ve followed Philadelphia basketball over the last half-dozen years, you know what to expect when seeing those three letters: FOE. The Morris Twins’ group (and their passionate fanbase) is back, and the team features a familiar cast of Philly and Kansas Jayhawks players. This is the third time in four years that FOE has participated in TBT, most famously competing (and nearly winning) with just four players in their opening game in 2014. As long as they have full roster, FOE is certainly a favorite to advance to the Super 16.
Sean Evans (St. John’s) and Markus Kennedy (SMU), give the team size and toughness down low. The guards on the roster can all slash, and are a challenge to stay in front of on defense. Three Philly natives (Villanova’s Maalik Wayns, Drexel’s Scott Rodgers, Hampton’s Vinny Simpson) and the trio from Kansas (Mario Little, Elijah Johnson and Tyshawn Taylor) are all tremendous at getting to the bucket. Also of note is guard Mychel Thompson, a former standout at Pepperdine and brother of Golden State Warriors star Klay Thompson.
DC on Point is a first time entrant, but has players that have some TBT experience. Notre Dame big man Torin Francis played on the first ever TBT champion team as part of the Notre Dame Fighting Alumni. Francis and former Clemson standout Sharrod Ford headline the team’s frontcourt. The team’s backcourt features one player with a local connection- La Salle’s Jermaine Thomas, a multiyear starter on 20th & Olney, as well as Isaiah Swann, a four year contributor at Florida State. A host of talented mid-major scorers in FIU’s Tymell Murphy, Delaware’s Andrew Washington, High Point’s Eugene Harris and Niagara’s Daryl Greene, all of whom averaged double digit scoring in their college careers, are among the other members of DC on Point.
6) City of Gods vs. 11) Gael Nation (4:15 PM)
City of Gods has entered the last two summers as one of the favorites to take home the big prize, but has fallen just short each time. They won Northeast regional in 2015 and 2016, but fell to eventual champs Overseas Elite at Rose Hill on both occasions. Several members of the DMV-based team return, though a few key players from the past two summers-- DerMarr Johnson, James White, Pops Mensah-Bonsu and Mike Sweetney-- are not listed on this year’s roster.
City of Gods still does feature a perimeter group that is as strong as any in the region, headlined by a familiar face in Temple great David Hawkins. One of four players to score 2000 points for the Owls, Hawkins has always been a tremendous scorer and a versatile, two-way player. Other returning guards include Drexel’s Phil Goss and Georgetown’s Chris Wright, both of whom will share point guard duties. The bigs have experienced a bit more turnover, with newcomers Etan Thomas, who played a decade in the NBA, and GW’s Mike Hall rounding out the roster.
The Iona Alumni team comes in as a bit of a sleeper in the field. Gael Nation enters with a roster littered with players that were integral parts of the most successful program in the MAAC over the last six seasons. Forwards David Laury, Taaj Ridley, Isaiah Williams and Aaron Rountree III are all long, athletic, 6-7 or 6-8 and could present matchup problems on both ends. The backcourt is strong as well, with two Big East guards, the high scoring D’Angelo Harrison (St. John’s) and Fuquan Edwin (Seton Hall), joining ex-Gaels Tre Bowman and Steven Burtt. This team will likely utilize a fast-paced style that Iona has used to its advantage over the past few seasons.
3) Boeheim’s Army vs. 14) DuBois Dream (6:00 PM)
In TBT’s fourth year, there are clearly teams that are starting to develop rather strong followings year after year, and it’s no surprise that the Syracuse alumni of Boeheim’s Army have emerged as the fan favorites in the Northeast region; with 2,616 fan votes, Boeheim’s Army had nearly 900 votes more than second-place South Jamaica Kings.
The most notable names on the team from a local perspective are two former teammates at St. John Neumann (now Neumann-Goretti) who starred together at ‘Cuse, Scoop Jardine and Rick Jackson, who are making their TBT debuts. They join a group which has won at least two games in each of the last two TBTs, led by guards Eric Devendorf and Delaware native Trevor Cooney, plus James Southerland, C.J. Fair, Donte Green and Brandon Triche, all of whom starred in Orange uniforms under the guidance of the man they named their team after.
It’ll be tough for even the most stringent Syracuse fan to root hard against DuBois Dream, however, as the western PA-based squad has pledged to donate half of its potential winnings to charity should it make an improbable Cinderella run through the bracket. No former Division I players are on the roster, but many of the players were standouts at the Division III level. As a senior at Penn State DuBois in 2016, Gustin Conde averaged 20.1 ppg, 5.2 apg and 7.8 rpg despite being just 5-11, while Corey Schontz was DIII All-American in 2012 at John Carroll University in Ohio. Josip Lucic (Washington and Jefferson) is the only player taller than 6-5, but he is more of a stretch big than a true post player. The roster is geared towards a spread-it-out style, focusing heavily on long-range shooting, and will look to beat teams by out shooting them.
7) Team Fancy vs. 10) Rebel Riders (9:30 PM)
It’s certainly fitting that these two teams get matched up in the first round, as both were at-large selections to the tournament after failing to finish in the top nine in the region in voting. They were deserving selections, for sure -- each have some NBA talent behind them, and each have plenty of former high-major college standouts who have gone on to lengthy pro careers. Team Fancy, a collection of NYC-based talent, is back for its second year in TBT after a first-round exit a year ago; the Rider University alumni of Rebel Riders are here for the first time.
When you think of Rider basketball, the first name that comes to mind is Jason Thompson, who starred at Lenape High School in South Jersey before starring as a Broc, averaging 16.7 ppg in four years and winning MAAC Player of the Year honors as a senior. The 6-10 forward then spent eight seasons in the NBA before spending last year in China; now he’s leading a team of Rider alumni and some talented additions. Thompson’s brother, fellow Rider alum Ryan Thompson, is also on the roster; Jonathan Thompson (no relation), Michael Ringgold, Brandon Penn and Novar Gadson also played at Rider. Supplementing them is former Florida/Boston College guard Elijah Carter, former Temple guard Semaj Inge and former Millersville forward Mikal Stibbins.
Team Fancy won’t have any current NBA talent on the roster, but it does have the backing of Mavericks guard Yogi Ferrell and recent Sacramento Kings draft pick Frank Mason III, who are both boosters for the team. They’ve been able to help Team Fancy attract recognizable former college stars like Allan Ray (Villanova), Ryan Pearson (George Mason), Kevin Parrom and Mark Lyons (Arizona), Scott Machado and Mike Glover (Iona), plus St. Francis Brooklyn's Jalen Cannon and Sacred Heart's Shane Gibson. If everybody’s there this weekend, this should be one of the deeper teams in the bracket, and that could be the difference-maker.
2) SuperNova vs. 15) South Jamaica Kings (7:45 PM)
One of the last games of the day will certainly be one of the most anticipated from the local crowd, as the Villanova alumni team that is SuperNova returns with its strongest group yet. The key for them this year will be showing up -- last year, only five former Wildcats showed up for the first round, and an injury to Scottie Reynolds forced them to play 5-on-4 as their stay was limited to a singular appearance. This year’s roster has nine players on it, so they should have a decent chance having some kind of a bench to rely on.
On the roster and thus supposedly making his TBT debut is the only member of the 2016 National Championship-winning Wildcats on the squad, Darryl Reynolds, though recent grad is currently on the Sixers’ summer league roster in Utah and could be pursuing other NBA opportunities. Along with Reynolds are a litany of names familiar to Wildcat fans: ‘Nova grads Isaiah Armwood, Shane Clark, Corey Fisher, Antonio Pena, JayVaughn Pinkston, Reggie Redding and Scottie Reynolds along with Malcolm Grant, who played his freshman year at VU before transferring to Miami (Fl.). Coaching the team are another two Villanova alums, Mike Nardi and Curtis Sumpter. With size, skill and ability all over the court, plus a lot of professional experience, it’s no wonder SuperNova is one of the top seeds in the Northeast.
Facing the Villanova alums is an underdog group from Queens making its first-ever appearance in TBT. Led by GM/point guard Cameron Tyler, who averaged 11.1 ppg during his career at Fairleigh Dickinson (2005-09), the South Jamaica Kings feature a number of former small-college players, including York College’s Dennis Moore and NYU’s Iyoha Agho. Look out for 6-7 wing forward James Anacreon, who began his college career at Wichita State but then settled in at Valdosta State, where he averaged 13.8 ppg and 8.1 rpg as a senior in 2012-13. As long as SuperNova gets a decent showing from its roster, it shouldn’t have too much difficulty in its opening-round matchup.