Summer has generally been a wasteland for college sports fans. While AAU hoops and finite recruiting events have generally satiated the weirdest and thirstiest of those in the college sports universe, this hole in the calendar — a dirge that follows college lacrosse’s sunset and continues until college football’s sunrise breaches the horizon — has always been ripe for something — anything — to fill the gap with a college-like substance palatable to the broad spectrum of fans desperately wanting at least a few moments of the insanity that makes following college sports an addictive elixir of self-flagellation and ecstasy. This impatience, born from a nine-month rush of games available virtually every day with most weekends allowing for half-day marathons of gluttonous consumption of college sports inventory, is not easily satisfied, and it took until 2014 for someone to finally find a vehicle for indulgence that both permitted egregious and maniacal support while also finding a structure that permits the kind of lunacy that breeds fanatical interest.
That instrument of methodical absurdity — The Basketball Tournament, a 64-team construct that mimics March’s great adventure with a mix of nostalgia, the unknown, a massive supply of games, and a pile of cash that is sizable enough to invite chaos based on the stakes. Everything that TBT isn’t — high-end throughout, balanced in its bracketing, etc. — is forgiven because of what TBT is — an almost perfect distraction that becomes an impossible obsession because its format makes you care, even for brief moments, about what it is offering. And its offerings are fantastic products that can only exist because of its form:
- Something weird will assuredly happen: In 2016, Villanova’s team played with four guys and almost won their dang game. This year, Vanderbilt’s alumni team bowed out yesterday and will be replaced by a Josh Selby/Kenny Boynton team that did everything but chuck a ball off the scoreboard from halfcourt in the pre-tournament Jamboree. Paul Champions, a new entrant this year, is anchored by 5’5” Earl Boykins and 7’6” Mamdou Ndiaye, a circus-like tandem of incongruent height and age that makes you wonder if a carnival barker is the actual promoter of this tournament. Marshall Henderson, formerly of Ole Miss and bad ideas, and Eric Devendorf, formerly of spitting hot fire and inciting rage, are in the field, destined to create a tumult because tilting the world sideways is part of their special brand of charm. “This makes sense, only because it’s totally insane” is all too frequent and that is a good thing.
- You can hate the name on the front and the back of the jersey: One of the great developments in this basketball experiment has been the inclusion/rise of alumni-oriented teams. Do you still have hate for Scottie Reynolds and the gold watch he got after his 30 years of basketball service at Villanova? Good news — he’s playing in TBT with a Villanova team featuring such other dorks as Antonio Pena, Jayvaughn Pinkston, Reggie Redding, and Curtis Sumpter! Remember how much you wanted to drown Pittsburgh in acid because their entire defensive philosophy was built around almost giving RKO’s to the opposition? Good news — you can watch Levance Fields clutch and grab and whine about fouls again! Still sore about Ohio State knocking Syracuse out of the Elite Eight in 2012? Good news — Aaron Craft is leading an eminently hateable Ohio State team with William Buford! This isn’t just about sentimental memories; this is about evening the score for past sins.
- It’s all broadcast live and there’s a mess of it: This weekend’s games in the South and Northeast regions start at 9:00 AM on Saturday and will finish at almost midnight. Then, on Sunday, another eight games will start mid-morning and close up shop in mid-evening. That’s 24 games in about a 24-hour window, packing a monster load of interesting hoops into a limited aperture with the great benefit of actually being able to follow all the games without needing a half-dozen screens like during the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament. And this all happens again next weekend when the West and Midwest regions tip off. Brain-scrambling hoops happening all over the place with, at least, some reason to watch — “That guys not dead?!” “DUNKED ON HIS HEAD!” “Josh Boone still looks like an idiot!” — every single match. These are the same reasons that you dedicate so much wasted time to college sports; TBT has all of these features and is giving it to you for free if you are willing to do the absolute minimum in return.
- No Georgetown: Just like the NCAA’s.
- The motivating stakes are real: Unlike The Big3, which is an unmitigated mess that Ice Cube should shelve and instead reboot as a playground tournament with true city players, and the NBA Summer League, an organized audition that has little relevance to the actual results on the scoreboard, TBT has actual team stakes — win and you inch closer to a $2 million pot of gold. The play in TBT, while shaky in spots either due to talent deficiencies or unformed chemistry, is always hard and the hustle is true. Nobody’s going to get a contract playing in TBT, but there is a chance to win some green, and that promotes combustion. Taking a share of $2 million isn’t life-changing money, but it is enough to fuel competition for the full time on the clock. Games get heated, and with many of these matchups loaded with old rivalries, the potential for explosive situations to occur is real.
TBT is almost a perfect blend of what you need to pilot through the interminable heat of the summer. It’s all there for consumption, and the guiding principle of the whole thing — compressed fun over a handful of weekends — is never seemingly lost. It’s outsized and mangeable, it’s unironic when it could easily fall into such trappings, it’s fresh while also being comfortably worn. It’s exactly what you want even if you think that you want — or deserve — something else. This is the catapult that delivers rainbow bombs and saves us from boredom.