Going into this year’s edition of The Basketball Tournament, Ohio State alumni team Carmen’s Crew – and every other team in TBT – has had to deal with a different set of challenges and protocol.
Unlike last year, when Carmen’s Crew won a 64-team tournament played in various cities across several weeks, this year’s TBT features a bracket of just 24 teams and is being played in entirely one city – as luck would have it, Carmen’s Crew’s home city of Columbus – over the course of just 10 days. Players and coaches have been forced to quarantine and stay within a “bubble” for the duration of their time in the tournament due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
That said, some things for Carmen’s Crew haven’t changed. The core of its roster remains a group of former Ohio State teammates who played together for the Buckeyes in the early 2010s. Jared Sullinger and Evan Turner are back to coach the squad, and so are most of the players from last year’s title-winning squad, including William Buford, Aaron Craft, Jon Diebler and David Lighty.
Dallas Lauderdale is returning to the court after serving an assistant coach last year and Otterbein alumnus Jeff Gibbs and Illinois alumnus Demetri McCamey are also back to play with the team for another year, while former Buckeyes Deshaun Thomas and Lenzelle Smith Jr. are joined by former Washington forward Pape Malik Dime as new additions to the roster.
Altogether, Carmen’s Crew believes it enters this year’s tournament with an even better roster than it had last year.
“Our first unit’s tough. Our second unit’s tough,” said Turner. “I think sometimes last year or whatever, we would go through games where we may have eight or nine minutes of no scoring or like kind of dull basketball, and I don’t see that happening this year. Our second unit did a great job defensively, but I think here, the first unit and the second unit are going to have equal amount of firepower.”
While many teams in the tournament had to ensure last-minute roster changes due to players testing positive or being exposed to confirmed cases of COVID-19, Carmen’s Crew’s roster has stayed intact. And because most of the players and coaches on the team have now known each other for at least a decade and have so much experience playing together, they believe their cohesiveness will once again be their biggest advantage.
“Knowing each other, where people like the ball, what spots people like to be in, reading each other and knowing what guys are thinking, I think that definitely in crucial moments gives you a step above others,” Lighty said.
One difference for the Ohio State alumni squad this year is that, as Sullinger said during the team’s media day on Monday, Carmen’s Crew has gone from “the hunters to the prey.” After upsetting four-time defending champion Overseas Elite in the semifinals before beating Marquette alumni team Golden Eagles in last year’s final, Carmen’s Crew is the No. 1 overall seed in this year’s TBT and will have a target on its back as a result. But the former Buckeyes say that hasn’t changed their approach, and they’re just as hungry to win the $1 million this year as they were to win the $2 million last year.
“If you look at all these basketball players, there’s a reason why they’ve won at every level they ever played at,” said Sullinger, who said he decided to coach instead of play because of the success they had without him playing last year. “It’s because they just know what to do, how to do it and when to do it.”
Craft will be looking to go out on top in what he expects to be his final week as a professional basketball player before starting medical school at Ohio State this fall, while Smith and Thomas will be seeking victory in their first TBT appearances after being unable to join the team in past years due to injuries or other commitments.
“We didn’t get any of the chicken last year, so now it’s our turn to try to get in on the pot,” said Smith.
Quarantining has been an adjustment, multiple players acknowledged, as they’ve been unable to leave the TBT bubble – which consists of Nationwide Arena, the Greater Columbus Convention Center and the Hyatt Regency, all of which are interconnected – since they arrived on Friday. Craft and others said they weren’t concerned about playing in TBT amid a pandemic, though, because of the communication TBT has had with them about its plan to keep them as safe as possible.
“TBT’s communication has been unbelievable from the very beginning,” said Craft, who did say the general public took COVID-19 more seriously in Italy – where he was when the pandemic started – than in the United States. “We’ve talked to them for probably a little over a month, month-and-a-half now of what they were thinking, what would be in place and just knowing that they were taking this very seriously, they were talking to the right people and they weren’t just kind of doing this halfway but when they do something, they do it well.
“That really gives you a lot of confidence and a lot of peace moving forward. And to this point, being in the hotel, it has been a little challenging not hanging out or seeing other people, but it’s like we’re back in college, we’re on the road with not much to do, just hanging out together. So it’s been a great experience, and I’m glad we’re able to be a part of it.”
All TBT teams are also having to adjust to playing without fans in the stands, which mitigates some of the home-court advantage Carmen’s Crew would otherwise have and has had in early-round games in Columbus in previous years. Craft believes playing in a quiet arena could actually be a benefit for him, though.
“As a defensive guy, as a point guard, I’m actually kind of excited to be able to hear everything without worrying about it being drowned out,” Craft said. “If I don’t hear a screen call or who’s in help side, it’s not because the fans are too loud, it’s because we’re just not talking. So I think it’s gonna be great for us as a team. It’s built-in accountability for us to see who’s really communicating and who’s helping each other out.”
“Knowing each other, where people like the ball, what spots people like to be in, reading each other and knowing what guys are thinking, I think that definitely in crucial moments gives you a step above others.”– David Lighty on Carmen's Crew's experience playing together
If the tournament plays out as expected, Carmen’s Crew could be headed for a rematch with Overseas Elite – who added seven-time NBA All-Star Joe Johnson to its roster this year – in the TBT final, which will be played at 7 p.m. next Tuesday. For now, though, Carmen’s Crew – which had a first-round bye – is focused on its first game in the Round of 16 against Illinois alumni team House of ‘Paign, which will be played at 4 p.m. Wednesday.
“We take it one game at a time,” Buford said. “If Overseas Elite is our opponent, then we’ll worry about them, but we’re worried about House of ‘Paign right now and just taking it one game at a time.”
If Carmen’s Crew wins on Wednesday, it will play one of the other two teams featuring former Ohio State players – Big X, whose roster includes Andrew Dakich and C.J. Jackson, and Red Scare, whose roster includes Trevor Thompson – at 4 p.m. Friday in the quarterfinals. The winner of that game will play at 4 p.m. Sunday in the semifinals. All games will be televised on ESPN.
Come next Tuesday night, all 12 players and coaches of Carmen’s Crew hope they will be crowned champions and add some more money to their bank accounts once again. Regardless of how it plays out, though, all the former Buckeyes are grateful to have the opportunity to play together once again.
“To be honest with you, I’m here just to hoop with the boys and have fun,” Thomas said. “Obviously, trying to win that money, but I think once we go out there and just hoop, have fun and play the way we play, then the results will come.”