Syracuse University is cool in that one moment you’re hanging with your bud at Faegan’s and the next you’re interviewing him because you both occasionally dabble in sports. In our case, I’m the dabbler while Eric is a full time broadcaster who has been doing the opening rounds of The Basketball Tournament for the past couple of years.
I caught up with Eric and was able to chat with him about what’s happened so far and what might happen with Boeheim’s Army on Thursday night.
Thanks again, Eric, and go Orange!
TNIAAM: How crazy is it to cover the first two rounds of the TBT? It's a full two rounds of a 64-team tournament with just you and a color guy, correct?
ED: The craziest. People love to say the first two days of the NCAA Tournament are their favorite two days of the year, but the first two rounds of TBT are my favorite four days of the year. It all takes place in two locations per weekend, so I catch much more action. The last two years, I called 12 games solo each of the first two weekends, and this year I called six games with an analyst each of the first two weekends. Unlike when preparing for other games, the bulk of TBT players haven't appeared in front of my eyes in a minimum of one year (the previous TBT), and as many as 10 years (when we watched them in college).
I am fortunate to have just completed my third year with TBT, so I had already prepped a chunk of guys once or twice before. However, I also prep countless players from scratch. These guys often offer better stories than NBA lifers. They have clawed to remain relevant in professional basketball, which means they have lived in countless countries and gone through the most unique experiences. The first two weekends of TBT remind you how deep the basketball talent pool is because football and baseball don't offer 1/100th of the professional opportunities.
For all of the former NBA players, Spanish ACB, Israeli, and Greek League stars in TBT, there's also a dude playing in a much lesser league who drops your jaw (looking at you Marcus Hall of Team Colorado).
TNIAAM: What's the read on Boeheim's Army? Have they looked better/worse/about the same as in year's past?
ED: Better, younger, and more cohesive. Hakim Warrick, super steady non-SU alumnus Willie Deane, and Demetris Nichols (an excellent scorer in the 2015 TBT) have been notable losses the last two years. But there have been fewer moving pieces in conjunction with guys who understand the seriousness of the TBT format.
Rick Jackson missed the first weekend in 2015. Donte Greene missed the first weekend in 2016 while not having played with the 2015 team. Brandon Triche was coming off an ACL injury, and CJ Fair and James Southerland were new to the format. Now you add the likes of John Gillon and Trevor Cooney.
Yes, Southerland counts as a moving piece with his return for the Super 16, but he has familiarity now. Boeheim's Army brings to Brooklyn three guys who are tied for SU's single-game record for three-pointers made (Gillon, Cooney, Southerland), an elite TBT slasher who is fifth all-time in 3PM (Devendorf), a seemingly much improved playmaker in Triche, two guys with size who can stretch the floor, and two bigs.
Devendorf's style prompts nostalgia and his TBT success has been covered, yet I am not sure we can do his performances justice. The excellence of two weekends ago, a combined 37 points in the first two rounds in 2016, and 16 points and five assists per game in four 2015 contests. The 30-year-old retired Devendorf would be a lock for a cumulative All-TBT Tournament Team for the three years Boeheim's Army has appeared. He can play with the current Syracuse team all he wants, but that's not a substitute for being a professional. Devendorf's ability to seek the rim at this point is beyond remarkable.
I was stunned Boeheim's Army jumped to a 22-point lead against Gaelnation, and equally impressed with the way Ryan Blackwell and Kevin Belbey's group responded to the pressure. The zone was fantastic at times. The flow of the game and outcome makes it obvious the double overtime victory was enormous, but those without passion for TBT roster construction may not recognize how well Gaelnation was built.
Balance, depth, elite perimeter defenders, size, and two pieces of instant offense. 2015 TBT runner-up Team 23 will forever hold the under-seeded crown because few knew who they were and what they brought to the table in the tournament's second year. Outside of Team 23, I will remember Gaelnation as the most dangerous double-figure seed and the best team to not advance beyond the first weekend. Statement win for the Orange alumni.
TNIAAM: Who in the rest of the TBT field were you most impressed with?
ED: Among games I called, Armored Athlete without hesitation. I highlighted them as the team to watch in an extensive West Region preview for thetournament.com, and ESPN TBT analyst Fran Fraschilla then proceeded to pick the No. 4 seed as his West champion just prior to the tournament. They don't garner the most fan attention because they are without a single NBA player and it is not an alumni team.
However, the coach, GM, and core players have returned each of the last three years, and they are a very committed group. They have the togetherness of an alumni team with three IU players, two Oregon players, two (and previously three) guys with Holy Cross connections, and multiple members of the Raptors 905 G-League championship team.
Despite our confidence in them, they still managed to impress me (and presumably Fran) the first weekend. I learned Friday night they would be without Tu Holloway (probably for good), and the IU duo of Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford for the weekend. This presumably meant big trouble against Team 23 in the second round. Well, no problem.
Armored Athlete won 84-77 and only received two points from Will Sheehey in 16 minutes. Exceptional defense and a balanced attack. Jalen Reynolds just re-signed in the Italian 1st Division, but I would be shocked if the 6'9" 24-year-old didn't make one of the loudest impressions with scouts in the entirety of the second round. Size, youth, shooting, handles, and supreme athleticism. Even with Sheehey's subpar Sunday performance, he joins Devendorf on the cumulative All-TBT Tournament Team for the last three years. Armored Athlete will appear in its third straight Super 16.
Three other quick hitters...
Team Colorado: Armored Athlete's Super 16 opponent. The reigning runner-up recognized it won five close games and far from dominated last year. Instead of taking the mindset of having blown a 20-point lead in the 2016 championship and returning with the same roster, Team Colorado added Chris Copeland. Josh Scott will join the team for the Super 16, and there's always the chance 2015 and 2016 TBT superstar Xavier Silas ditches another professional obligation to join Team Colorado down the road. Silas attended Team Colorado's training camp and starred for the 2015 City of Gods team that defeated Boeheim's Army in the quarterfinals. Marcus Hall proved Saturday and Sunday that his 24 points per game in the 2016 TBT wasn't a fluke.
Golden Eagles (Marquette Alumni): Called their region last year but only caught glimpses of them last weekend as I was on play-by-play in the West. Admittedly, after last year's Super 16 win against Armored Athlete, I thought the Marquette alumni had a great chance to win the title. Dwight Buycks is a beast of an efficient scorer. They will commit on the defensive end, and Buycks is far from the only offensive weapon.
Ram Nation (VCU Alumni): Like Marquette, I was in their region last year but I have caught little of them in 2017. Shined defensively last year but struggled to score in critical situations. The addition of Eric Maynor helped that problem overnight. With two weeks since their last games and a bigger stage at LIU Brooklyn, I also wouldn't be surprised if we see a completely different Larry Sanders. Ram Nation and the Golden Eagles are both in their second year of TBT, which makes them quite dangerous.
TNIAAM: Gut feeling: Does Boeheim's Army do what it has never done and make the Semifinals?
ED: Yes. Not only is Boeheim's Army better, but the competitors atop the Northeast Region are weaker. To be clear, the overall talent in the Northeast and entire tournament is significantly better than it was each of the last three years. However, even after an impressive second round win in Philadelphia, FCM Untouchables is the weakest No. 1 seed, the back-to-back Northeast champion City of Gods overhauled the roster and lost, and No. 2 seed Supernova lost.
Untouchables beat Boeheim's Army last year, but it is not an identical roster, we've established BA has improved, and BA still could have won that game more nights than not. Team FOE tried its best to choke away its second round game with late backcourt turnovers, but Tyshawn Taylor is ridiculously good off the bounce. Spitballing numbers here, but as a retuning TBT player in the Super 16 spotlight, maybe Taylor goes for 24 points, five rebounds, and eight assists. Will it be enough to upset Untouchables?
Of course, Boeheim's Army must worry about a quality Team Fancy before it thinks about the quarterfinals and semifinals. Delroy James has received significant attention for his two big performances in Philadelphia, but Boeheim's Army matches up well. If BA can limit Scott Machado's penetration and handle Mike Glover (who missed the first weekend), the Orange may shine defensively Thursday. Not many will recognize the name Shane Gibson, but he has shot the ball well wherever he has played. Gibson will be a name to remember in this one for better or worse.