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This Year, The Basketball Tournament Has Earned Its Definite Article

The TBT championship will be played Tuesday night, marking the end of the tournament’s 2020 run. But we won’t soon forget one of the few enjoyable sports experiences of quarantine.

TBT/Ringer illustration

Most years, The Basketball Tournament feels like a misnomer. Yeah, it’s a tournament where they play basketball, but calling it The Basketball Tournament is a stretch. After all, there’s the NCAA tournament, the NIT, those weird tournaments below the NIT, and loads of professional and international competitions that all prove that The Basketball Tournament’s usage of the definite article “the” is a lie. But in 2020, everything else disappeared. There were no shining moments in March; the NBA season pressed pause just a month before the playoffs, and now teams are bubbled off in a COVID hotspot, hoping everything goes OK. At this moment, there is just one basketball tournament. The Basketball Tournament. And it is beautiful.

The Basketball Tournament—TBT for short—started its 2020 run on July 4 and will wrap up with its championship game Tuesday night. The Tournament, which has been played each year since 2014, adapted to the threat of the coronavirus more adeptly than most major sports leagues. All the action has taken place in Columbus, Ohio. (Columbus is a big fan of a good The.) While past tournaments have typically featured 64 teams, this one had just 24. Players have been under strict quarantine rules, not leaving their hotel except for games, and five teams were eliminated from the tournament for positive tests. (They had four backup teams ready.)

Tuesday night’s championship game will feature a team of Marquette alumni who appeared in last year’s championship, squaring off against Sideline Cancer, the 22-seed in a 24-team tournament. It caps off what’s been an exceptional tournament, filled with many of the things we love about March Madness—just in an empty Ohio gym in July.

TBT is the closest thing that has ever existed to professional college basketball. It’s a single-elimination tournament with teams made up of players who were stars in college but didn’t make it in the NBA—ensuring they remain trapped in the amber of America’s basketball memory as college hoopers rather than pros. The TBT really is a #tbt.

Many of the teams consist of guys who played together in college, then decided to reunite with those former teammates to create de facto alumni squads. The best way I can summarize this is that there’s a Syracuse alumni team called “Boeheim’s Army” that runs a 2-3 zone. (Yes, Eric Devendorf is on the team. Why did you even have to ask?) You can’t be a college basketball fan and not derive a deep sense of inner satisfaction watching a team drilling open 3s over some Syracuse suckers who are scared of manning up on defense.

Last year’s TBT champion was Carmen’s Crew, whose roster is more or less the same as the 2011 Ohio State Buckeyes. For personal reasons that I won’t get into, the 2011 Ohio State Buckeyes are my least favorite basketball team of all time. So it brought me great joy to see the Crew lose their first game of this year’s tournament thanks to an incredible performance by former South Dakota State scorer Mike Daum, who finally got revenge for losing to Ohio State in the 2018 NCAA tournament:

The Basketball Tournament also has game-winners. In fact, it literally has to have game-winners—the Tournament uses the Elam Ending, which was also adopted by the NBA All-Star Game this year. In this system, the winner is the first team to hit a certain target score rather than whichever team is leading when the clock runs out. This forces teams to continue to score toward the end of the game even if they have a big lead, and ensures that every game ends with a made bucket:

Perhaps most importantly, The Basketball Tournament has Cinderellas. The most dominant team in the history of TBT is Overseas Elite, which went 25-0 while winning back-to-back-to-back-to-back tournaments from 2015 to 2018. While most of their opponents were made up of former college teammates, Overseas Elite was more like a hand-picked squad of players you may not have known in college but who turned out to be superstars in professional international leagues. It had Errick McCollum, a former EuroCup MVP and scoring champion in both China and Greece; D.J. Kennedy, a scoring champion in Germany; Kyle Fogg, also a scoring champion in Germany; Justin Burrell, MVP of the Japanese league; and Jeremy Pargo, a four-time champion in Israel. Overseas Elite was the squad for players who wanted to finally be recognized stateside for the talents they’d long shown elsewhere. Also, they made $7 million for winning four straight tournaments, which is nice.

Last year, Overseas Elite’s run came to an end when they lost for the first time to Carmen’s Crew. But rather than disband, they added Joe Johnson, a seven-time NBA All-Star and by far the most well-known player ever to play in TBT. Last year, Johnson completely dominated the Big 3, Ice Cube’s summer 3-on-3 league primarily composed of retired NBA players.

Joe Johnson wasn’t just Overseas Elite—he was American Elite. And when Overseas Elite added Johnson after their first-ever loss, it was like when the Warriors added Kevin Durant after the 2016 Finals. While many of the players from past renditions of Overseas Elite weren’t able to return this year, it seemed like they’d still be able to coast to the title with Johnson.

But in the semifinals, they went up against the 22-seeded Sideline Cancer. Sideline Cancer is led by 5-foot-9 Marcus Keene, who was the NCAA’s leading scorer at Central Michigan in 2017 and was most recently seen attempting to win the Taiwanese league alongside 7-foot-5 giant Sim Bhullar. (I watched!) Overseas Elite held a double-digit lead most of the way, but Sideline Cancer went on a 20-8 run and won in the most thrilling way possible—they were losing by one, but former George Washington guard Maurice Creek drilled a 3 to hit the target score:

In Tuesday night’s championship game, Sideline Cancer will square off against the Golden Eagles, a Marquette alumni team featuring former NBA players Travis Diener, Dwight Buycks, and Darius Johnson-Odom. The winner will get $1 million, the loser will get nothing. And if Sideline Cancer wins, $100,000 will go to pancreatic cancer research. So it’s Marquette vs. the Cinderella story with the undersized star and a big donation to cancer research. Honestly, I’m not even sure Marquette alumni should be rooting for Marquette.

I’ve spent the past four months looking for random sports to watch—the Bundesliga, Taiwanese basketball, various romantic comedies with sports subplots—but TBT has been my sports highlight so far. Even if it goes back to just being A Basketball Tournament in future years, I’ll never forget how The Basketball Tournament was the most enjoyable sports experience of quarantine.