On June 1, the deadline arrived. Darius DeBerry, the general manager of the Jackson TN UnderDawgs, needed his team to rank in the top-11 of fan votes in the Midwest Region to qualify for The Basketball Tournament. Prior to that day, his mother feverishly posted Facebook statuses, along with sending out plenty of emails, trying to assist her son in his quest to enter the tourney.
While at work in the afternoon, DeBerry received a phone call, but unfortunately, the folks on the other line weren’t from TBT. Sadly, he heard from the hospital near his mother’s home, learning that she had passed away. Amazingly, though, DeBerry also discovered that the woman stayed active on social media hours before she died, attempting to garner extra votes.
“She said ‘Y’all gonna get in, and y’all gonna win it, baby,’” DeBerry remembered. “That was one of the last things we talked about the day before she passed away.”
Of course, mothers know everything. Once the UnderDawgs qualified for the event, competing with 400-plus other entries, the undersized group’s luck failed to run out. DeBerry’s squad, ranked as the No. 16 seed in the region, upset the No. 1-seeded Bluegrass Boys, filled with SEC alumni, such as ex-Tennessee big man Brian Williams and former Kentucky center Shagari Alleyne.
— TBT (@thetournament) July 17, 2016
Even though a last-second three-pointer via Always a Brave’s Tony Bennett knocked them out the following day, the UnderDawgs delivered what TBT strives to accomplish: July Madness.
“We do tournaments all the time, but the atmosphere out here is just wonderful,” DeBerry said.
Now in its third year of existence, the tournament’s success has led to a wealth of coverage from ESPN for the Super 16 and beyond, including three games on the main network, six games on ESPN2, two games on ESPNU and four games on ESPN3. The championship game, taking place on Aug. 2, will be even be aired in primetime on ESPN.
— TBT (@thetournament) July 6, 2016
However, “The Mothership” didn’t jump on board with the idea at first, thinking it could be fool’s gold. Nevertheless, when the tournament opened up its doors in 2014, a former college basketball player drew the attention of an employee at the network.
“Marshall [Henderson] happened to play at our 8:30 a.m. game on the first day of the tournament, and he runs on the court with his jersey half-slung over his shoulder, screaming, ‘All right, let’s play some ball,’” Jonathan Mugar, co-founder of TBT, said. “Maybe like 20 minutes later, I get an email from someone at ESPN, saying, ‘Hey, if you’re not doing anything for the championship game, we’ll stream it on ESPN3.’”
After the Notre Dame Fighting Alumni secured the crown as the first champion of the tourney, the team also collected the $500,000 prize, which was privately funded by Mugar himself, along with help from his friends and family. Over the next two years, the reward doubled, currently standing at $2 million for the winner of the 64-team, single-elimination bracket.
Jason Williams with the 🏀💨💯 pic.twitter.com/zp8cCLLeRy
— TBT (@thetournament) July 16, 2016
In 2015, ESPNU carried the opening game of the then-Super 17, along with the Super 16 matchups and the quarterfinals. ESPN would broadcast the semifinals and championship, held at 3 p.m. ET instead of the more desired slot.
This year’s broadcast crew consists of Doug Sherman, managing the play-by-play duties for the remaining 15 games. Veteran commentators Dan Dakich and Fran Fraschilla will divvy up the analyst role, with Dakich handling four games and Fraschilla suiting up for seven contests.
“I’ll be nervous, especially as we get to the semis and finals because so much is at stake,” Fraschilla said. “The pressure is incredible, and the intensity level is off the charts.”
Although no player pays a fee to enter the tournament, all of the losers go home sans a dime, watching this year’s winner reel in a handsome payday.
“Last year, my favorite moment was telling the three officials, who are all high-level NCAA officials, doing the finals to keep their car engine running,” said Fraschilla. “If there was a close call at the end of the game, they were going to want to get out of Fordham University as quick as they could.”
— Molly Sullivan (@MSullivanFrench) July 19, 2016
On the sidelines, Molly Sullivan, Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia’s sideline reporter for the 76ers, joins the guys for each of the games in her current town (July 21-23), and ESPN’s Jeff Goodman takes over for both the semifinals and title tilt in New York.
“Each of these players are all underdogs and all have something to prove,” Sullivan said. “That’s what attracted me to TBT.”
— Boeheim's Army (@BoeheimsArmy) July 17, 2016
Many former NCAA stars linger in the bracket. For instance, Boeheim’s Army boasts numerous Syracuse alumni, such as Eric Devendorf, C.J. Fair and Donte Green.
Additionally, ex-NBA guards Mike Bibby and Jason Williams formed Pedro’s Posse, facing off against the aforementioned Always a Brave gang, loaded with Bradley graduates from its 2006 run to the Sweet 16, like Patrick O’Bryant.
On top of that, twins Marcus and Markieff Morris, current NBA players for the Washington Wizards and Detroit Pistons, respectively, are even the coaches of FOE.
“As a sideline reporter, that is an absolute jackpot,” Sullivan said. “They know the game better than anybody, but how they will keep their guys in check is the key.”
Needless to say, TBT has transformed into a hoops fan’s paradise, and ESPN can share that glory with a national TV audience. Nothing in the summer can beat a basketball tournament with a ‘ship, full of cash, on the line, right?