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Mad Ants should embrace TBT

July 31, 2018

OK, I admit it, I love The Basketball Tournament. Over the last two weeks, I found myself watching games at home, at work, even on my computer, and not just because I wanted to report on the goings on with the two teams with Fort Wayne ties : the Fort Wayne Champs and the Eberlein Drive : looking for the $2 million winner-take-all prize.

There’s something to this concept. Anyone can put a team together and, if they drum up enough internet support, go for the dough with a good chance of their games landing on one of ESPN’s channels.

TBT needs some tweaks, and I’ll get to those in a moment, but it’s stunning that the only people who aren’t embracing the tournament around here are the people who should be the most: the Mad Ants.

The back story is that the Champs, whose fourth TBT appearance ended Friday in the final 16, has always been made up of mostly players and coaches who have been with the Mad Ants. This year, that included Trey McKinney Jones, Stephan Hicks and Tra-Deon Hollins, to name a few.

The team was originally known as Ants Alumni and made it to the nationally televised semifinals in 2015. However, the NBA’s Indiana Pacers bought the Mad Ants to be their G League team that fall and, not long after, they cleaned house of respected personnel including Garrett Martz, who had been the vice president of sales and marketing and has always been the man behind the TBT team : as general manager, getting the players, funding the travel and lodging, and drumming up the requisite fan support.

The Pacers demanded that the Mad Ants’ brand be severed from the endeavor. Maybe that was an understandable decision in the TBT’s infancy, when we weren’t quite sure what it would become. Today, however, the Pacers’ stance is nothing short of petty.

The Mad Ants need all the free publicity they can get as they try to get Memorial Coliseum reasonably filled on a nightly basis. Two things they have going for them are a core with some longevity : McKinney Jones, Hicks, coach Steve Gansey : which appeals to local fans, and that sometimes their players make it to the NBA, as McKinney Jones and Walt Lemon Jr. did last season.

What an opportunity TBT has created for the Mad Ants to puff their chests out and say, “Hey, those are our guys,” as they were on ESPN2 twice within a week. But the Mad Ants ignore it. Their Twitter account, where one would expect to find much action during TBT, was rehashing highlights of a G League dunk contest many months old, and little else. The Pacers, meanwhile, haven’t acknowledged any Mad Ants but Monday lauded Pacers guard Darren Collison for coaching another TBT team.

Ignoring TBT is a fruitless effort anyway, since any media covering the thing, including ESPN, have to mention the Mad Ants regularly. And this isn’t a knock on the Mad Ants’ personnel, as this decision came from Indianapolis, but it speaks to a bigger problem: Do the Pacers care about building the Fort Wayne Mad Ants’ brand? Or is it just an afterthought to them, destined, as most think, to move to the Indianapolis area?

When it comes to TBT, teams are being embraced by colleges. One of the semifinalists is Golden Eagles (Marquette alumni). Notre Dame gives shouts to its guys, who won the inaugural TBT. The Scarlet & Gray (Ohio State Alumni) games in Columbus looked like Buckeyes games.

Heck, TBT games at the Coliseum would seem like a perfect marriage. And clearly people want basketball this time of year, or we wouldn’t be finding NBA Summer League or BIG3 on our TV sets.

I love that TBT, which has stated its TV ratings are performing well with the 18-34 age group, uses international goaltending rules, allowing you to play the ball on the cylinder. The Elam Ending is fit for G League experimentation : with four minutes left, you add seven points to the leading team’s score and the first one to get that mark wins : because it limits the late-game fouling and guarantees a winning shot.

But I’d like to see more continuity with the rosters. It’s tough to keep track of the players, who come and go between rounds, and teams can load up with more talent the further they progress. Your opening roster should be your roster : period.

TBT has evolved into a event ruled by professional players from the G League or overseas, and that’s fine, but I’d like to see an alternative bracket of amateurs only, so it’s not all about who can cajole a pro off the couch.

Which brings us to Eberlein Drive, whose general manager is Blackhawk Christian graduate Matt Mitchell. He has a lot of pros, including Jerome Randle, Willie Reed and Christian Watford, a former Indiana University and Mad Ants player, but you won’t hear them claim any ownership of him as he plays in Thursday’s semifinals.

Justin A. Cohn, senior writer for The Journal Gazette, has covered Fort Wayne sports since 1997. He can be reached by email at jcohn@jg.net; phone, 461-8429; or fax, 461-8648.

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