Basketball fans weren’t able to enjoy the NCAA Tournament and everything that comes with March Madness this season, but COVID-19 isn’t stopping The Basketball Tournament and for the first time in TBT’s existence, Tennessee will be represented thanks to an alumni team The Ballinteers.
TBT is an annual basketball tournament in which admission is free and the prize is $2 million. In the first six years of the event teams have played at eight regional sites before reaching a final 16 that plays in Dayton, Ohio.
The format has been forced to change this year due to COVID-19, leading to a 24-team tournament over 10 days. Despite the changes, the former Vols are still eager to make their TBT debut.
Former All-SEC forward and Ballinteer’s coach Ron Slay commented on former Vols’ interest in getting involved in TBT.
“We’ve actually been talking about it for the last four years, ever since the tournament started,” Slay said. “Guys were still playing, and I was still active, so guys were still kind of going their separate ways with workouts and things of that nature.”
“As the years went on, we always came back to it each summer through text while the games were going on saying, ‘we need a team.’ This past summer Bobby Maze did a great job getting everybody together and connecting the dots,” Slay said.
Slay, as well as former UT guard and Ballinteer’s general manager Maze, helped organize a team of well-known former Vol basketball stars. The roster consists of Wayne Chism, Chris Lofton, Kevin Punter, Jarnell Stokes, Robert Hubbs III, John Fields, Duke Crews, Melvin Goins, Cameron Tatum, Kenny Hall, Jauan Smith and Scotty Hopson, if he doesn’t get called up to finish the NBA season. The team will be coached by Slay, Maze and Tyler Smith.
The 12-man roster and the three coaches have combined to make 12 All-SEC teams and span from the Jerry Green to Rick Barnes era at UT. Despite a wide timeframe in which they played at Tennessee; it wasn’t hard to get guys to join the team.
“The one thing about Tennessee that’s different from other universities, I know for sure a lot of guys stay in touch and feel a connection to the program and all feel like brothers,” Slay said. “I think more so it was the timing of it. I think everyone was willing to play but just having the timing and how things are now with COVID, and no one’s worried about summer leagues right now, everybody’s resting. There’s not much to do, so I think everyone was ready to get back and what better place than TBT.”
With the tournament set to take place in July, the Ballinteers are just starting to work out and practice together. How a team full of talented players that mostly haven’t played together mesh will be critical and Slay believes that starts on the defensive end of the court.
“We’re gonna see if guys can fall into a role,” Slay said. “I think going into a tournament like this that’s the biggest part. Focus on playing defense and rebound the ball. We know the guys that can fill it up. Scotty Hopson, Chris Lofton and Kevin Punter -- we can run it around them and get the bigs to run the floor, set screens and hit the trailer three. I got an idea, but I don’t want to say too much because things can change after scrimmages.”
While TBT isn’t exclusively filled with alumni teams it’s full of them including teams from Syracuse, Arkansas, Purdue, West Virginia and Ohio State -- whose team called Carmen’s Crew won last season. In the most recent team rankings, TBT had the defending champions ranked No. 1 with the Ballinteers closely behind at No. 3.
A meeting with Carmen’s Crew would present a bit of revenge for Ballinteers Lofton, JaJaun Smith and Chism who were a part of the 2007 Tennessee team that lost to Ohio State in the Sweet 16. Chism and Hopson were both part of the Vols’ 2010 team that got payback, beating the Buckeyes in the Sweet 16, 76-73.
“I look at it the same way being a part of Tennessee,” Slay said. “I felt a pain in that loss because that could’ve been a special, special team. Then they won it last year, so what better than to play spoiler with them coming back.
TBT will take place in July and while there won’t be fans in the stands the games will be broadcast on ESPN and its family of networks.
As for the potential $2 million in prize money? The Ballinteers will figure that out later.
“We know what we’re playing for and we’re definitely playing for the money but almost more so we’re playing for the name on the jersey,” Slay said. “I think all of us, we look at it as playing for Tennessee and getting after it. We’ll just have to see, one game at a time and keep that on the backburner for now.”