Notre Dame Fighting Alumni chase another TBT title

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

CHICAGO – Park him at the foul line with a couple free throws to decide a basketball game and confidence is high that he will connect.

Put the ball in his hands with the clock winding down in a close contest and he's certain that he's done enough to deliver the decisive shot.

But send him to the stands to watch a group of fellow former Notre Dame men's basketball players chase down a $500,000 grand prize in The Basketball Tournament championship game last summer and Tim Abromaitis becomes a bundle of jumbled nerves that cannot sit still.

Abromaitis and former Irish All-American Luke Harangody were spectators in June 2014 when a group known as the Notre Dame Fighting Alumni won the inaugural 32-team, single-elimination TBT event with a four-point championship victory. Abromaitis has played in his share of big basketball games throughout his collegiate and professional careers, but he's never experienced anything close to what transpired that Saturday night at Case Gymnasium on the campus of Boston University.

“Me and 'Gody were hanging on every bucket and every shot,” Abromaitis said earlier this week. “It was one of the coolest games I've ever witnessed just in terms of what was at stake and having such a rooting interest in the outcome.

“Once I went to that game in Boston, it was like, 'Damn, I gotta find a way to be a part of this thing.'”

Abromaitis gets that chance Thursday when the Fighting Alumni open defense of their TBT championship in the Super 17 round of this year's tournament at McGrath-Phillips Arena on the Lincoln Park campus of DePaul University. The game against the Midwest Dream Squad, a No. 14 seed out of the Midwest Region, tips at 8 p.m. South Bend time and will be televised by ESPNU.

Last year's group, like this one, was the creation of former Irish walk-on guard Kieran Piller. Abromaitis was scheduled to compete in the first go-round, but when the playoffs with his professional team in France ran longer than anticipated, he had to bow out. Now, Abromaitis is one of five former Irish scheduled to make their TBT debuts.

Guards Eric Atkins and Ben Hansbrough, Harangody and small forward Carleton Scott join a returning group of guards Ryan Ayers, Russell Carter, Colin Falls and Tory Jackson and forwards Torin Francis, Zach Hillesland, Rob Kurz and Ty Nash. Former Irish forward Jordan Cornette will assist Piller with coaching duties.

Abromaitis, Atkins, Carter, Francis, Hansbrough, Harangody, Nash and Scott all played professionally last season in Europe.

The team's core said immediately after winning last year's top prize - "Back-To-Back!" was the postgame celebratory chant in the Irish huddle - that a repeat run was mandatory. Walking away simply couldn't be an option, though guard Chris Thomas chose not to return.

“It was like, 'Yo, we've got to go and win this thing again,'” Jackson said. “We realized everything we had accomplished and knew that we had to come back. We've got to be ready. Teams are going to be gunning for us.”

 Second time around

In many ways, last year's championship run set the competitive bar for all future TBT competitions. Last June, Notre Dame was the lone squad in the 32-team field composed entirely of former college players from one school. This month saw former players from a plethora of Division I colleges, including Colorado, Oklahoma, Saint Louis, Syracuse, Villanova, Virginia and Wisconsin form teams to chase what is now a $1 million top prize in a field that started with 97 teams.

“We set the standard for them,” Jackson said. “They saw what it takes to win and now they want to do it.”

Following the first two weekends of competition, the Syracuse alumni team – Boeheim's Army, which arrives in Chicago after winning their first two games as the top seed of the Northeast Region – may be the early favorite.

What did it take last season and what will it take this year to advance out of Chicago following three games in three days to get to the TBT Final Four next weekend at Rose Hill Gym in New York? A whole lot of teamwork and togetherness, where a squad must care less about how many points they score or how many shots they get or trying to do enough to impress anyone with an NBA eye that happens to be in the stands.

Notre Dame won it last year because the group played much like they practiced during their collegiate careers back in South Bend. They were unselfish. They made the extra pass. They hustled down the 50-50 loose balls. They spaced the floor, moved the ball and played without any hint of ego. They also used their smarts to out-think opponents, then outplayed them.

Four players off last year's team averaged double figures for points. Ayers led the team at 14.2 per game.

“We were just such an unselfish group,” said Jackson. “Everyone knew their role. It was so easy to get with each other and just play.”

 A team thing

The Fighting Alumni convened Tuesday in Chicago, where they planned to practice a couple times and get together for a few strategy sessions. Scouting who may or may not cause them matchup concerns on the Midwest Dream Squad wasn't as important as reiterating that the key to any success is to just play.

Incorporating the five new faces – perhaps four since Harangody told the Tribune earlier this week in a text message that he's unsure if he'll compete after participating in last week's NBA's Samsung Summer League with the Phoenix Suns – isn't much of a concern.

“It's a great bunch of guys that we have this year,” Jackson said. “The new guys are going to have so much fun.”

Hansbrough, the 2011 Big East player of the year, declined to play in last year's tournament because he still was chasing his NBA dreams. But following four years of professional basketball that has seen him make stops in the NBA, the Development League and Europe, Hansbrough is ready to transition to the next phase of his basketball career, one that he hopes includes college coaching.

First up is a chance to win a championship with his fellow former Irish.

“This is more something that I can now go and do,” Hansbrough said. “This group of guys, we have a good feel for how to play with one another.

“It's kind of weird. Once you're a part of the Notre Dame basketball family, you always know how to play the right way and carry that will you the rest of your life.”

Regardless of the level of unselfishness and togetherness, every team needs that one guy they look to in good times and in bad, The one guy who's going to stay steady through all the ups and downs and runs that occur in any win-or-go-home atmosphere. The former Irish are quick to stress equality and a lack of ego and team ball, but who is the group's Alpha dog?

Without question it's the quiet and assuming guy who helped drive Notre Dame to a 25-8 season as the lone captain during his senior year in 2007-08 and also once drew the assignment as an NBA rookie of guarding Yao Ming.

“Rob Kurz is the reason we're all together,” Jackson said. “He's the guy we lean on. He knows the game so well. He's just a big bulldog on the court who gets the job done.”

The Notre Dame Fighting Alumni has the bulls-eye on its back for however long they continue to advance. Yet Abromaitis insists that as one of the new guys, he feels no additional pressure in making sure they repeat as TBT champions.

At the end of the day, it is still basketball, albeit with a very large prize waiting at the end of what would be a five-game journey.

“It would be disappointing if I did jump in with these guys and we lost,” Abromaitis said. “But you go out there and play hard and we'll have a pretty good shot at it again.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

WHO: Notre Dame Fighting Alumni vs. Midwest Dream Squad.

WHAT: The Basketball Tournament, a 97-team, single elimination five-on-five tournament with a grand prize of $1 million.

WHERE: McGrath-Phillips Arena (3,000) on the campus of DePaul University, Chicago.

WHEN: Thursday at 8 p.m. South Bend time.

TELEVISION: ESPNU.

RADIO: None.

TICKETS: $20 for adults; $10 for ages 12 and under.

NOTES: Notre Dame is the defending TBT champion after winning last year's inaugural 32-team, $500,000 winner-take-all event. ... Radio play-play-voice of Irish men's basketball Jack Nolan will call Thursday's game on ESPNU. Irish coach Mike Brey will serve as color commentator. ... Thursday's winner advances to Friday's game against the Ants Alumni, a squad comprised of former players in the NBA's Development League Fort Wayne Mad Ants.