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TBT Preview: Golden Eagles Alumni prepare to play for $2 million

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A year ago, the Golden Eagles Alumni (GEA) came three games short of bringing home $2 million in The Basketball Tournament, losing to Always a Brave in the regional championship.

“They blame me for it because I had a wedding I had to attend in the game that they lost,” GEA head coach Wesley Matthews said at Marquette’s Centennial Hoopla in June. “But I’m excited for (this year’s TBT).”

The Alumni will have a chance to make up for its downfall last year starting Saturday as the TBT Midwest Regionals begin in Peoria, Illinois. “(Redemption) is a lot. We know we kind of gave up that last game. This year we just want to come out with that same firepower and try to do special things and win it all,” Matthews said.

This time around, GEA enters the Midwest Regional with a better understanding of what to expect. The only player to not return to the 2017 team is guard Derrick Wilson. The team is also bringing in a few new faces: Trend Blackledge, Trent Lockett and Juan Anderson. Lockett was on the roster last year but could not play because of an injury.

“We needed to get more length and athleticism,” Marquette director of player personnel and Golden Eagles Alumni coach Travis Diener said. “And those three guys do that.”

More experience also leads to heightened expectations. The team received the top seed in the region after receiving more votes than the second and third-seeded teams in the region combined. The Golden Eagles Alumni are no longer an underdog.

“Going into last year, I don’t think we knew just how good we were relative to the tournament,” Diener said. “They realize that we actually have a chance to win it (this year.)”

“(Last year) was kind of throwing our hat in a ring,” Marquette all-time leading scorer Jerel McNeal said. “This year we’re coming back with a little bit more strategy.”

The Golden Eagles Alumni are not quick to embrace being the top dog in the region. Several of them pointed out that it’s a measure of the team’s popularity, not their actual skill. Guard Dwight Buycks thinks that having the top overall seed actually hurts the team.

“I actually hate that we have the number one seed,” he said. “We’re not going to get relaxed because we have the number one seed. We actually want to act like we have the number eight seed.”

McNeal does not view the seeding as a benefit either. “The seeding process really doesn’t mean a whole lot. Every game is going to be a tough game, no matter who you play.”

The winner of TBT gets a $2 million prize. Getting so close last year has only intensified McNeal’s desire to get to the grand prize. “It can go a really long way,” McNeal said. “We are all keeping our fingers crossed.”

The money is not the only thing at stake for the Alumni. TBT could give former Marquette players some much-needed exposure. Jamil Wilson and Trent Lockett, for instance, will be coming directly from NBA Summer League. Buycks already played in the Orlando Pro Summer League and is hoping to sign an NBA contract after emerging as one of the league’s stars.

“Right now it’s out of my hands,” Buycks said. “I had a great summer league and did what I’m supposed to, now it’s just the waiting game.”

The Alumni will head down to Peoria on Saturday to take on the 16th seeded Midwest Dream Squad, a third-year TBT participant mostly composed of former non-D1 basketball players from the Chicago area. Midwest Dream Squad lost in the first round last year, but made it to the Super 17 the year before.

Assuming GEA avoids a first-round upset, the team will take on either the eighth-seeded Majerus SLU Crew, a Saint Louis University alumni team named after former Marquette assistant Rick Majerus, or the ninth-seeded Hurley Basketball Club, a third-year TBT participant created by fans of Team Barstool.

“I believe they’re capable of winning it,” Steve Wojciechowski said of the Golden Eagles Alumni. “But anytime that it’s a one-and-done tournament, those things aren’t guaranteed. Because one game where something happens and you’re not at your best you can lose.”

Tipoff for the game against the Midwest Dream Squad is at 7:30 p.m. CT. The game can be seen on WatchESPN.

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