June 27, 2014

by Staci Gasser –

Ten former University of Notre Dame basketball players have teamed up once more and are just one win away from winning $500,000.

United under Irish green, the Fighting Alumni will face a band of NBA players known as Team Barstool in the Basketball Tournament’s inaugural championship game this Saturday, June 28, at Boston University’s Case Gymnasium at 7:00 p.m. (EST) and will be shown on ESPN3.

The Fighting Alumni roster, coached by former Notre Dame walk-on Kieran Piller, consists of players who played at Notre Dame between 2001 and 2011 and have continued their basketball careers in the NBA, the developmental league and top-ranked leagues overseas. They include Rob Kurz (2004-08), Torin Francis (2002-06), Colin Falls (2003-07), Russell Carter (2003-07), Chris Thomas (2001-05), Ryan Ayers (2005-09), Tyrone Nash (2007-11), Zach Hillesland (2005-09) and Tory Jackson (2006-10). The 10th man is Carter’s childhood friend Paul Gause who played at Seton Hall from 2005-2009.

“We had enough fun at Notre Dame that it’s worth doing it again, and we would all love to spend more time together than we have in recent years just with guys playing overseas and being in different cities,” Thomas says. “It’s more than exciting, it just feels natural. It feels like family to all be back together again.”

The Basketball Tournament, or TBT, is an open, single-elimination, winner-take-all basketball tournament for $500,000 privately funded by a group of investors from Boston.

“We wanted to put on something fun and bring back some of those names that people have forgotten about in the last couple of years, and I think the Notre Dame team is a great example of that with guys like Torin (Francis), Chris (Thomas) and Colin (Falls), names that Notre Dame fans and fans across the country certainly would know,” Dan Friel, New Orleans federal prosecutor and co-organizer of the TBT, said. “So we wanted to provide, in a compelling form, a time where we can still see those guys play.”

Earlier in the year, a friend from law school sent Piller an article about TBT, and after reading more about it on ESPN-affiliated Grantland.com, Piller started calling guys he has kept in contact with in the Pennsylvania-New York area.

“All the guys were super interested. It got to the point where guys were calling me and asking me to be on the team,” Piller says. “By the time the deadline for the tournament approached, there was a wealth of talent. So we were able to put a team together from that, starting with a base of east-coast guys and spilling out from there based upon what we thought we needed to be competitive in the tournament.”

Starting in March, teams registered online without having to pay an entry fee. Teams earned a spot in the bracket by building their fan bases through self-promotion across social media and grassroots efforts. The 24 most popular teams in the fan vote as of May 1st were selected, in addition to eight at-large teams that the tournament board picked themselves.

“Signing up for a fan wasn’t like a Facebook thing where you could just click like, they had to fill out a lot of information,” Piller says. “It was tough getting people to do that. All of us spent a lot of time emailing people, sending tweets, using Instagram to ensure those votes.”

The team did what they had to do to ensure a spot in the tournament, even getting the Notre Dame Men’s Basketball office and the Notre Dame Athletics Media Department to send out tweets on their behalf.

The organizers of the tournament used social media as their main marketing tool, using very little money on marketing. By doing that, they were able to find a way to get the fans more involved in the process.

“We were looking for a compelling reason for fans to become interested in this, and what a better way to do that than having them have a voice in terms of who they want to see compete,” Friel says. “The other thing it does is it compels the players to put their best foot forward and recruit the fans.”

Along with the Fighting Irish and Team Barstool, a squad that boasts three NBA first-round draft picks and more than 20 years of NBA experience that includes Dahntay Jones, Matt Walsh, Andre Barrett and Josh Boone, the Cornell 2010 Sweet Sixteen team; recent alums from Princeton, Air Force, Temple, St. Joes, several members of Villanova’s 2009 Final Four team all participated.

“At the time, we thought it was going to be a street ball kind of tournament. We knew it would attract some pretty good players once the word got out with that kind of money on the line,” Piller says. “We saw the team list and every single team was stacked with active professional basketball players.”

The Fighting Alumni were able to have just one practice together before the tournament started. They claimed to be rusty at first but the chemistry was like riding a bike.

“Having all played under [Notre Dame Men’s Basketball Head] Coach Mike Brey, it was very quick for us to catch a flow and really get a chemistry together even though some of the guys on our team hadn’t played at the same time in Notre Dame,” Piller says. “Everyone is so attached to the program that everybody is still very aware of everyone else’s games, skill set and how they play, and the principles are the same, so we clicked pretty early. “

With their size and athleticism still as big and strong as ever, the Fighting Alumni won their first four games, playing in Philadelphia, by double-digits. They beat the Peacemakers International in the fourth game to advance to the finals 91-61.

“You have to have fun and you have to take it seriously,” Thomas says. “Because we’ve all played at high levels, we understand that competing, winning and playing well individually and collectively is all fun. But you also have to have a serious mentality to do so. You can’t be unprepared in anything.”

Now, the Fighting Alumni squad faces it toughest opponent yet.

“Team Barstool is a very good team,” Thomas says. “Individually, their resumes are better than ours. I think it’s going to an uphill battle, but I think we all have confidence in ourselves, in each other, to come out on top but I’m sure they do as well.”

“It’s an awesome match up because it shows the different types of teams that we envisioned,” Friel says. “We are very happy with the match up, it’s the perfect matchup.”

The fans were even more involved in the championship game-they voted for it to be played in Boston as well as voted on the shot clock time and ESPN3 will even broadcast the game.

According to Friel, ESPN called the organizers of TBT within 45 minutes of the first tip-off and inquired about its interest in broadcasting the event. Since the initial media coverage starting with the Grantland.com article, people continually asked TBT if the tournament was going to be live-streamed or available for viewing,

“We’ve received daily requests to find media coverage of the championship game,” TBT founder Jon Mugar says. “And now, thanks to ESPN, we’ll be able to show this intense matchup for $500,000 live on ESPN3. This game features passionate athletes playing team basketball and with this much at stake, anything can happen. It’s great that we’ll be able to let viewers in on this unique experience. “

Team Barstool seems to be the favorites mostly due to its more widely-know talent; it can be easily seen by the 2081 Barstool fans versus the 561 Fighting Alumni fans on social media.

But that figure isn’t affecting the Fighting Alumni one little bit.

“People from the outside looking in are saying, `Yeah Notre Dame has good players but the guys on Team Barstool are not just making a living, they are making a very good living playing basketball,'” Piller says. “But I counter it out by saying we got a lot of guys like that too. They may not have been as big of names in college but they are very successful pros.

“And I think the one thing that seems to be forgotten by people who don’t necessarily pay attention to the Notre Dame program is that under Coach Brey, we were one of the three most consistent teams when we were in the BIG EAST, the strongest conference for a good 10 years. And we have some of the best players from that era playing on this team.”

At each position, the matchups individually are very similar in size, athleticism and skill sets.

Team Barstool has players who like to go one-on-one and are talented at creating their own shots while Notre Dame players prefer to come off a stagger screen for their shots. Notre Dame will have an advantage inside since Francis will be joining the team adding to the size and skill of Kurz and Nash up front.

“Our strategy is just to play together,” Thomas says. “On offense and defense, communication and being unselfish has worked for us in the past, and it has worked for us in the first four games. We are looking forward to getting back out on the court and ultimately holding that trophy up.”

If the Fighting Alumni win on Saturday, they have promised to donate a portion of their prize money to Coaches vs. Cancer, a charity that Coach Brey is tirelessly involved in as a way to honor the coach who helped each one to the next steps in their basketball careers.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Thomas says. “We all have earning potential and have been successful or are coming into success in our respective careers so to give back is what we wanted to do. People need help, and Notre Dame has taught us to give back and to give without expecting to receive and share your talent and gifts with other people. I think that’s our basis around it, to share what we’ve been blessed with.”

“Just being at Notre Dame from the time you step on campus, Coach Brey gives you the principles of family,” Carter adds. “We have so much that we should give back because that’s our duty as athletes, as coaches, as people.”

That eminent Notre Dame family bond is what has driven the Fighting Alumni to get as far as they have.

“It’s funny that I say I’m surprised, because I’m never really surprised, by the support of Notre Dame and the support from Notre Dame. We reached out to the basketball office, and they couldn’t be more involved or happier to help. While we were at the tournament, we were getting texts from everyone on the coaching staff after each game. They were plugged in, following us. That was really cool seeing people still involved in the program get so excited about our success.”

Tickets for Saturday night’s game are also available through TicketMaster.