Severna Park native Steve Wojciechowski’s team has come home.
As head coach of the Marquette basketball team, it’s been a long stretch since his high school days at Cardinal Gibbons in Baltimore, where he earned 1994 McDonald's All-American honors. It would have been fair to doubt that his former Golden Eagles players would be traveling to his home state.
But Thursday, they will.
The Golden Eagles, named after many of the players’ alma mater, won all three rounds in the Northeast bracket to reach Baltimore. One of four surviving teams who have battled through a field of 72 in July to reach The Basketball Tournament (TBT) semifinals, the team wearing Marquette’s colors are just two wins away from a grand prize of $2 million.
“I think it’s great, it’s so cool. Baltimore, and the city, holds a special place in my heart because it’s where I developed as a player,” Wojciechowski said. “For our former players to go back there with the chance to win $2 million in the tournament championship is awesome, and I’m looking forward to being down there to support them.”
It’ll be an uphill battle for the Golden Eagles, who will first have to bring down the three-time defending champions Overseas Elite on Thursday night to reach the final.
Jon Mugar, the creator and CEO of TBT, said he believes that’s a possibility.
“Honestly, [the Overseas Elite] they’re 23-0 now. … It’s absolutely phenomenal what they’re doing, but out of those 23 games that they won, I would estimate they’ve been trailing in the games at least 60 percent of the time,” Mugar said. “There are so many close calls with this team, players in the tournament look at this team and think, ‘I can beat this team.’ ”
Whoever triumphs in that matchup will meet the winner of the Eberlein Drive-Team Fredette battle in Friday’s championship with the prize on the line — 90 percent of which will be spread among players, coaches and general managers. The remaining money will be doled out to the top 201 fans who helped get them there in the first place.
The ultimate prize, to Wojciechowski, is a little more marvelous than a one-time cash reward and the hopes of drawing NBA interest from the exposure. It’s a chance to cast off the years they’ve spent away from the simple college drive to tournament glory, and just do that again.
“All the guys on the team have had great professional careers,” he said. “This is an opportunity, one, to wear the Marquette uniform again, to compete for a couple million dollars, and reconnect with friends and teammates that you usually don’t get a chance to do in other situations.”
That’s by design. When Mugar came up with the TBT four years ago in coffee shops on his days off as a comedy writer, he’d imagined a more “democratic” option for basketball players.
“There’s so few jobs in the NBA and there’s so many who could play at an NBA level. You could throw any number of our players in there and they’d fit right in,” he said. “No one would think twice.”
Some already have. Out of the semifinal field this year, there are 21 players who have played in the NBA or NBA G League. The Golden Eagles’ Jamil Wilson played 15 games with the Los Angeles Clippers in 2017-18 and Team Fredette’s namesake, Jimmer Fredette, 2011’s top scorer in the NCAA, played five NBA seasons with the Sacramento Kings, Chicago Bulls, New Orleans Pelicans and New York Knicks.
“Not only are some of these players coming out of the NBA but I anticipate many will go in as well,” Mugar said.
Other than the obvious, there is a monetary incentive for TBT players to strive for exactly that. In a new addition to the tournament, Puma promised an automatic endorsement to any TBT player that signs with an NBA team within the year.
More than 20 players involved in this year’s TBT were more freshly collegiate, taking part in this March’s NCAA tournament — including guard Jourdan Grant from UMBC, whose Hilltop Dawgs were eliminated in the first round by Old Dominion alumni.
“There are players certainly playing for the exposure as well as the experience,” Mugar said. “Given that we have 23 games on ESPN, a lot of these players see this as an opportunity to either prove that they are worthy, or in some cases there are people coming off an injury and want to prove they’re mobile and athletic and ready to play.”
This is the final four’s second year in Baltimore.
“We took the biggest risk on Baltimore last year because we had never been here before,” Mugar said. “They were pretty staunch on having the TBT and sold us extremely well. This is a basketball hotbed, and they delivered the highest attendance finals we’d ever had in 2017. It was a pretty easy decision to come back here and grow it even more.”
While last year’s tournament was held at Coppin State, Morgan State will host this time around, with an emphasis on the city’s growth as the TBT hosted a job-hiring event and a health fair to benefit residents.
This year’s “Day of Giving” also took volunteers to Montebello Elementary-Middle School to repaint the school’s gymnasium and basketball court.
“But last but not least, it’s an athletic event. That’s something we do very well here at Morgan. I expect the atmosphere will be very similar to a Coppin game; there will be a lot of energy,” Morgan State athletic director Edward Scott said. “We want a packed building, and most importantly, we want to put on a good show for the city of Baltimore and for Morgan State University.”
Tickets are still on sale, available at freshtix.com/events/the-tbt-championship. Lower-level bleacher seating costs $20, upper level chairback costs $30 and courtside seats cost $200. For those who can’t make it, the semifinals and final can be viewed on ESPN.
Aug. 2 — No. 1 Overseas Elite vs. No. 3 Golden Eagles (Marquette), 7 p.m.; No. 2 Team Fredette vs. No. 7 Eberlein Drive, 9 p.m.