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TBT Preview: Carmen’s Crew vs House of ‘Paign

The reigning TBT champions open The Basketball Tournament vs an explosive Illinois alumni team.

From left to right: Jared Sullinger, Jon Diebler, William Buford, Aaron Craft, and David Lighty in 2011

After sitting idly by for the first four days of the tournament (and not getting sick, thankfully), Carmen’s Crew is set to hit the hardwood this afternoon at 4:00 ET. The game will be broadcast on ESPN. The Ohio State alumni team earned a first-round bye after winning TBT in 2019, and therefore only needs to win four games, as opposed to five, to repeat as champions and take home the $1 million winner-take-all prize.

Last season, Carmen’s Crew won six straight games — including one against four-time champion Overseas Elite — to win their first TBT crown, but this year is a bit different.

Due to Coronavirus-related concerns, the tournament was chopped down to 24 teams, and the top eight received a bye. This means to repeat, the Buckeye alumni team only needs to win four games rather than six, as they did last year. The 16 teams who did not receive a bye must win five games to win the crown this season. All of the games are taking place at Nationwide Arena in downtown Columbus, but there are no fans in attendance, so there won’t be much of a home court advantage for the men in scarlet and gray.

While the roster experienced very little turnover from last season, one major change was the swap of one All-Big Ten honoree for another, as LaQuinton Ross did not return this summer. However, Carmen’s Crew did land the big fish they’ve been angling to get for years: Deshaun Thomas. Thomas, a second-team All-American and All-Big Ten Selection, has apparently been on Carmen’s Crew’s radar for quite some time, and this season they finally got their man.

“They’ve been trying to get me to play for a couple years now,” Thomas told a TBT representative Friday afternoon when Carmen’s Crew first arrived at the hotel. “This year was just good timing to be able to play with them, just to get with them and be able to play again, it’s gonna be really exciting.”

Thomas, who was drafted in the second round of the 2013 NBA Draft by the San Antonio Spurs, spent last season playing in Greece, where he was coached by the legendary and crusty former Louisville head coach, Rick Pitino. He averaged 12.6 points and 4.1 rebounds per game overseas, and has one year left on his contract.

Aside from Thomas, Carmen’s Crew also picked up former Ohio State guard Lenzelle Smith. Smith, who played in 131 games for the Buckeyes from 2010-2014, was the second-leading scorer on the 2013-14 team, when he averaged 11 points and 5.1 rebounds per game. From his sophomore through senior season, he missed a total of two games. He will provide guard depth alongside Aaron Craft on this year’s team, especially with former Atlantic Sun Conference player of the year Courtney Pigram not being included on the 2020 roster.

Carmen’s Crew also features a former Fighting Illini guard, as Demetri McCamey played for the University of Illinois from 2007 to 2011. He was a three-time All-B1G selection while he was in Champaign, averaging 12.4 points per game to go with 5.3 assists. He was also a high school teammate of Carmen’s Crew coach and Ohio State legend Evan Turner. McCamey spoke to Derek Piper of the Illini Inquirer last week, telling him that “It’s going to be tough” playing against his alma mater. But when you just won $150,000 last summer playing with the Buckeyes, can you blame him for sticking around?

David Lighty guards Demetri McCamey in a 2010 Big Ten matchup between Ohio State and Illinois in Champaign, Illinois. Photo courtesy of Associated Press.

On the opposite side, House of ‘Paign, the 16-seed in TBT, will challenge Carmen’s Crew in ways they typically would not be during the opening round of the tournament. While many first round games are tune-ups for a top-seeded team, McCamey and his Buckeye buddies will need to be locked in from the jump, or else risk getting eliminated on the very first day. Last week, I wrote that House of ‘Paign is a team we should keep an eye on and that Mike Daum is a player everyone should tune in to watch.

House of Paign boasts a two-headed monster of Malcolm Hill and Daum, the seventh-leading scorer in NCAA history. They also employ the services of several other former Illini, such as Andres Feliz, Michael Finke, Leron Black, and Nnanna Egwu.

In their first-round win over 17th-seeded War Tampa on Saturday, House of ‘Paign got at least 15 points from three different players, with Hill scoring 15, Feliz 20, and Daum dropping a team-high 21 points to go with 13 rebounds.

Feliz, the energetic and lightning-quick guard from the Dominican Republic, will be a great matchup for Craft, and will certainly test the veteran point guard’s energy and endurance as he enters what could be his final game of organized basketball ever. Thomas will almost certainly guard Daum, but his ablity to shoot 3’s (Daum was four of five from three-point range on Saturday) and stretch Carmen’s Crew’s defense will present a unique challenge. If Thomas is unable to stop Daum, his team may begin to defend by committee, but the reality of the situation is that Carmen’s Crew will not be able to completely stop Daum. They can only hope to contain him enough to a point where he is not controlling the game all on his own.

Prediction: Carmen’s Crew 84, House of ‘Paign 78

While it may not be the most pleasing to watch in the early going, I think Carmen’s Crew has too much offensive firepower with the addition of Thomas to be contained for a full 36 minutes. That, paired with the presence of Craft on the defensive end, should carry Carmen’s Crew to an opening-round victory.

Feliz scored 20 points on Saturday against War Tampa, which is something he only did three times in his whole college career. With he and Craft joined at the hip during this one, I do not see Feliz getting anywhere near 20 points.

Daum will be a nearly impossible task for Carmen’s Crew, but if they keep him near that 18-20 point range and nothing more, I think you’re looking at a Buckeye win. Any more? Things could get a bit hairy.

The X-factor to watch in this one may be Jeff Gibbs, the Swiss army knife and resident bowling ball of Carmen’s Crew:

The 39 year old, 6-foot-2 power forward was a huge weapon for the Buckeye squad last summer on their way to the title, forcing his way into the paint and bullying much larger defenders with his 250-pound, but very compact, frame. He was the 2002 NCAA Division III Player of the Year at Otterbein University in nearby Westerville, where he averaged 23.5 points, 16.3 rebounds, and 3.4 assists per game. That is not a typo.