Thomas Rogers and Akil Mitchell played for Tony Bennett as the Virginia men’s basketball program started to grow into a national power.
The former roommates are reuniting this summer in hopes of winning a summer tournament that’s rising in popularity.
Since their UVa playing days ended, Rogers started working in finance while Mitchell continued playing basketball professionally. In addition to playing overseas, Mitchell played in The Basketball Tournament, or TBT, a single-elimination 64-team tournament and helped lead a team to the Super 16 in the summer of 2018. The winning team takes home a $2 million prize to split amongst itself.
With Rogers looking to find ways to connect the Virginia men’s basketball alumni network, he began thinking about forming a UVa alumni team. Rogers and a few others announced the formation of a team this year, with hopes of competing in the 2020 tournament, which starts on July 23.
Mitchell liked to joke with Rogers over the past few years that he wouldn’t be on board to join the team, but the forward ultimately obliged and agreed to join UVa’s 2020 team.
“I’m like, dude, if we have a UVa team, you are on the team, OK?” Rogers said. “I just like of left it at that, so he didn’t really have a choice.”
Mitchell joins Sean Singletary, Darion Atkins, J.R. Reynolds and Sammy Zeglinski as former Wahoos that Rogers considers “hard yes’s” to play on the team. Rogers himself is overseeing the creation of the team, but he won’t take the court as a player.
UVa’s alumni team is supported by Hoops2o, which was created by former Virginia basketball star Malcolm Brogdon as part of Chris Long’s Waterboys initiative. If the UVa alumni team won the event and the prize money, $150,000 would go to Hoops2o.
Placing a team in the TBT field of 64 is something Rogers wants to do annually as he looks to build the UVa basketball alumni community. He hopes this season is a good first step to building that connection and getting the team’s foot in the door in the tournament.
“That’s kind of the plan is to just do this forever,” Rogers said. “This is part of a bigger initiative to build a long-term plan for the alumni group. I think it’ll really help to have some continuity and have that every year.”
With the tournament slated to begin toward the end of July, TBT is operating under the assumption that it can hold everything as planned this season, even with COVID-19. Eight regional sites and a championship site are sprawled out across the country.
Jon Mugar and Dan Friel, co-founders of TBT, are keeping tabs on everything that’s going on in relation to COVID-19, large gatherings and travel restrictions. With months until the tournament’s planned start date, Mugar feels confident the best approach is to continue forward with the expectation of holding everything as planned in late July.
“We have three and a half, four months to go until we play,” Mugar said. “Everything changes so rapidly. I’m very convinced that A) we’ll play in some form and B) the sooner we make a decision, the worse it will be.”
Staying the course doesn’t mean TBT will defy health guidelines or risk player safety to put on the event. Mugar believes his organization is small and agile enough to make quick decisions in the event of a necessary cancellation or postponement. With over 100 days until the event, TBT has time to evaluate new data as it comes out before rushing to a postponement or cancellation.
Should health restrictions remain in place in July, Mugar’s team will be ready to change course.
“If we run into that, we are developing all these contingency plans now to change and accommodate,” Mugar said. “Just like everyone else, we want to put on an event, but we want to put it on safely and with the blessing of all local government and national government agencies.”
With a few months until the open-application even begins, the field of 64 has yet to be officially set as teams apply and the TBT team evaluates which teams will make the field. UVa’s team believes it stands a good chance of making the field.
Friel called the selection process more of an art than a science. Unlike the NCAA Tournament, there aren’t NET ratings or various metrics to rank the teams applying, since many of them rarely play together in formal settings. TBT uses three criteria to make informed decisions about which teams earn spots in the field.
First, Friel and TBT members look at the team’s potential fan base. More than anything, the co-founders want people tuning in to watch games. That takes a blend of good basketball and well-known players on the court.
Second, TBT evaluates reliability. Will the team show up with a full roster and remain committed to the event?
Third, a team’s potential quality of play is evaluated.
“Some people are surprised that that’s the third criteria, but it really is, that’s how we rank it,” Friel said. “We want to see a good team compete, obviously, but if it came down to a team that is a little bit lesser in terms of our estimation of quality but that we know and that we know is going to show up, well then we’re certainly going to take the team that was more reliable than the one that might have some better names on paper.”
Given the UVa alumni team’s ability to already secure five committed players with a few other leads, the Cavaliers check off the reliability box. The players on the roster either play professionally at the moment or have significant professional experience as well, checking off the box for quality of play.
With a recent national championship, the men’s basketball program’s fan base is growing rapidly.
“There [are] obviously some advantages that alumni teams like this UVa team would have over other teams,” Friel said. “The first one, obviously, is that there’s just hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of University of Virginia basketball fans out there, who I would assume would be excited about seeing these guys play.”
TBT believes it can play a tournament this summer, and Virginia believes its team will be in the field. For Rogers, who is moving back to Charlottesville to attend UVa’s school of business in the fall, the tournament represents a chance to build upon the Virginia men’s basketball alumni community.
Even if the tournament doesn’t go on as planned or something comes up, Rogers wants UVa fielding a team for years to come. It’s beneficial for the players and alumni, and it also gives the fans a taste of UVa men’s basketball in July.
Given the season’s abrupt ending, Virginia fans will gladly take any basketball they can get.
“I think it’s a really easy way for us to connect the alumni with a fan base that’s pretty ravenous for basketball at the end of July and early August, especially this year,” Rogers said.