It’s like old times for former Notre Dame men's basketball players
They jumped at an unexpected opportunity to come together for a common cause and rekindle days of when they shared a college basketball bond.
They had no idea everything would fit together so smoothly, which allowed a group of former Notre Dame men’s basketball players to win four games over three days earlier this month in something called The Basketball Tournament.
The pieces fit together so perfectly that the former Irish are one win away Saturday from capturing the tournament’s top prize of $500,000.
“That’s all I can think about, go out there and just win this thing,” said guard Chris Thomas. “You can talk about the Sweet 16s and the Final Four (in 1978) and beating UCLA and that was all great for the program, but to kids today, that’s ancient history.
“This is the biggest basketball game Notre Dame has ever been a part of. It’s for a championship and we want Notre Dame to be a champion. That’s why I’m here.”
The wheels that delivered the former Irish to Boston this weekend were set in motion late in the winter.
Former walk-on guard Kieran Piller read of a new single-elimination tournament taking shape for spring. It was open to anyone with any level of playing experience who could put together a 12-man team (10 players, two coaches) and receive enough fan votes to legitimize their respective squad.
Piller started by connecting with two of his basketball brothers, Ryan Ayers and Zach Hillesland. Ayers plays professionally in Finland while Hillesland works in the restaurant business in Chicago. Both were up for joining up.
“It was one of those things where you think, ‘Yeah, I can definitely get out of bed for $500,000,’” said Hillesland, who played professionally for a short time in Germany after graduating in 2009. “So that was the start of it. We just pieced it together as we went along.”
With the tournament set in Philadelphia during the first full weekend in June, Piller concentrated on getting East Coast guys. Former power forwards Torin Francis, Rob Kurz and Ty Nash were in. So was shooting guard Russell Carter. Shooting guard Colin Falls also planned to journey from his home in Chicago.
Living in his hometown of Indianapolis, Thomas heard about the team’s formation and asked in. Fellow former guard Tory Jackson, now an assistant coach at Northwood (Mich.) University, contacted Notre Dame coordinator of basketball operations Harold Swanagan, who contacted Piller, who added Jackson’s name to the roster.
Tim Abromaitis, Luke Harangody, Kyle McAlarney and Carleton Scott were interested, but each had to honor commitments to their professional teams overseas.
Ayers, Carter, Francis and Nash still play professionally overseas.
With the team a player short when final rosters were due, Carter called his buddy Paul Gause, a former defensive wizard at Seton Hall, to help. Piller serves as the general manager while Jordan Cornette is the coach.
On the night before the opening round of the 32-team tournament, the group assembled at Ayers’ high school, Germantown Academy, for a practice that Hillesland described as “haphazard.” They played some three-on-three and put in about seven basic sets. Some, like “single-double” they still run at Notre Dame.
The next day, it was time to play. The initial goal? Don’t lose the opener.
“We just looked at it as an opportunity to play for pride, get some games in and have a little reunion,” said Kurz, the only guy in the group with regular-season NBA experience. “We were all together for about 10 minutes in that first game and everything clicked.
“It was the easiest thing ever.”
Playing under the name of the Notre Dame Fighting Alumni, the former Irish won their opener, then won again the next morning. Expected back for another game hours later, they collectively decided that if they had to play two games in one day, they might as well get all the way to the end regardless of the odds.
“A lot of people out there looked at us and thought we were a bunch of has-beens,” Jackson said. “There were people wondering if we could make it happen, but we looked like a real team.
“Nobody had any egos. We all put them aside because we were there for something bigger than ourselves.”
There were times during his college career when Thomas had trouble fitting his ego inside the south dome of the Joyce Center. He admits that if given a chance to do it over again, Thomas would be more of a team-guy and less of a me-guy.
The Basketball Tournament has allowed him to be the player he wishes he could have been during a four-year college career (2002-05) that saw him become the fourth-leading scorer (2,195 points) in school history.
It’s no longer about how many points he can score or how many shots he can take or how many highlight plays he makes. Thomas, who leads the team in assists (4.5), is about something more than getting his.
He’s set the standard for a team-first tone.
“This thing has re-lit a fire in me that I haven’t felt for a long time,” said the 31-year-old who retired in 2012 after several professional stops in Europe. “My game is now a complete 180. I can’t jump any more. I’m slow.
“I have more of an open heart.”
Back in time
The former Irish stayed with the same rotation in Philadelphia – Kurz and Nash did most of the heavy lifting on the front line. Ayers worked on the wing with Carter and Thomas in the backcourt. Jackson and Gause wreaked havoc defensively as energy guys off the bench. Hillesland was the glue guy who spent more time strategizing with Piller than logging minutes. Francis and Falls couldn’t participate.
Francis was still playing professionally in Venezuela while Falls was away on a business trip to South America.
Both are expected to be in Boston for Saturday’s finale.
Six players are averaging double figures for points. The 6-foot-7 Ayers leads in scoring (14.2) and rebounding (5.0). Some of it has to do with having recently returned from overseas. Some of it had to do with the early games being held in his adoptive hometown. Most of it has to do with his teammates.
“Just playing with those guys makes it easy,” Ayers said. “You move without the ball and they’re going to find you. Everyone shares the ball. We were all on the same page.”
Ayers has been the most consistent performer, but Carter is the most electric. Having played in so many places around the globe since his college career ended in 2007, Carter still has the knack of getting a basket in different ways. He hit for 20 points with seven rebounds and three steals in the semifinal win.
“Russ is Russ,” Thomas said. “You can’t tame a beast that doesn’t want to be tamed.”
Often undersized and seemingly overmatched around the rim during his college days, the 6-8 Nash is a consistent low-post threat on both ends, which stunned some of the former Irish.
“He is,” Kurz said, “an absolute beast.”
The Fighting Alumni were one of the few teams that actually looked like a team. They weren’t five guys going five directions. They were one, with one goal – play together.
“It is one of my proudest moments,” said Irish coach Mike Brey, who planned to take the squad and several additional former Irish to dinner Friday. “That’s a special group.”
Off the floor in Philadelphia, the former Irish refused to go their separate ways. Thomas stayed at Kurz’s house while others crashed at the home of Ayers’ parents in suburban Philadelphia. The held a cookout one night, all went out to dinner the next and gathered to share stories and laughs and cracks on one another during their college days as they watched an NBA finals game.
It all seemed like old times. Good times.
“You fall right back into old rhythms with everyone,” Hillesland said. “It’s something you definitely miss, that locker-room atmosphere that people outside the game don’t understand.
“You can’t always be as honest with people as you are with your teammates and brothers.”
Connections run deep with Saturday’s championship opponent, Team Barstool. Kurz was in the Cleveland Cavaliers’ preseason camp with point guard Andre Barrett, who played at Seton Hall. Former Florida swingman Matt Walsh went to high school with Ayers. Guard Donnie McGrath was a handful for Notre Dame during his days at Providence. So was former Connecticut big man Josh Boone and Justin Burrell of St. John’s. Thomas counts former NBA swingman Dahntay Jones among his closest friends in the game.
“They’re very talented,” Ayers said. “Hopefully our smarts will work in our favor.”
With more fan followers than the Notre Dame Fighting Alumni, Team Barstool was allowed to pick the site of the championship (Case Gymnasium on the Boston University campus). They also decided on a 24-second shot clock after a 45-second clock was used in the tournament’s opening round.
“They believe the 24-second clock could cripple the Fighting Alumni,” said tournament founder Jon Mugar.
Many believe pre-tournament favorite Barstool will roll Saturday, but the former Irish often played and embraced a similar underdog card in college. This will be the same as nobody giving Notre Dame a chance to win at Connecticut or in the Carrier Dome, or in the 2003 NCAA tournament.
Yet just competing isn’t going to cut it. The thought of winning a championship was enough Friday to get Jackson back on a plane (he has a fear of flying) while Carter is skipping a friend’s wedding.
“We’re all in,” Hillesland said. “I will throw life and limb on the floor at this point.
“We have one game to achieve something really cool.”
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