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TBT: Winner-take-all hoops tourney has Albuquerque flavor

Cody Toppert, left, and Bryce Alford, right, both of whom played high school basketball in Albuquerque, are participating in the $1 million The Basketball Tournament event July 4-14 in Ohio. (Courtesy Cody Toppert at left, AP at right)

Again, there will be basketball.

The first live-action, televised hoops games in three months will tip off Saturday on ESPN in Columbus, Ohio, as part of the seventh annual TBT (The Basketball Tournament), this year featuring a slimmed-down, 24-team, single-elimination bracket format for the $1 million winner-take-all prize.

And the event won’t be without a little Albuquerque flavor.

Coaching one of the event’s annual contenders, No. 5 seed Eberlein Drive, is Albuquerque Academy graduate Cody Toppert, the former NBA assistant and current assistant coach with the Memphis Tigers.

Playing on No. 7 The Money Team, which boasts a roster full of former college stars — is La Cueva High and UCLA graduate Bryce Alford.

“It’s fun, you know. It’s just gonna be fun at this point to just get out there and play” Toppert told the Journal this week from his hotel room in Ohio where the event will occur in a quarantined bubble of sorts to protect participants from contracting COVID-19 after extensive pretourney testing.

“The atmosphere here is so unique. I mean, hopefully it’s not the norm. Hopefully, we can get through this as a world and start moving forward. … But I’m excited. It should be fun and hopefully we’ve got a lot of people rooting for Eberlein Drive. And maybe we’ll get a chance to meet up with Bryce.”

PODCAST: To listen to Episode 30 of the Talking Grammer podcast, a conversation with Cody Topper, CLICK HERE

If the two do meet up — William Hill Sportsbook in Las Vegas, Nevada, put Eberlein Drive at 12-1 odds and TMT is 14-1, both top six in the 24-team event — it will be good news. The only way the two can play based on their placement in the bracket is in the July 14 title game, meaning one would be a part of a roster taking home a part of the $1 million purse.

Alford, who played a shortened professional season in Germany this past season, told the Journal getting to be a part of the TBT this summer when a close friend and coach David Nurse approached him about it was a no-brainer.

“It was hard for me to say no and a good chance of winning some good money,” Alford said. “I just missed playing — our season (overseas) getting cut short. I just missed playing so it’s just another excuse for me to go play basketball.”

But did he latch on to a team that’s good?

“I think we got a shot,” Alford said, rattling off some of the credentials of his teammates such as former Gonzaga All-American Kyle Wiltjer and ex-UCLA teammate Thomas Welsh. “… It’s hard. It’s a hard deal to win. That’s why it’s a big-money prize, but we got a lot of good talent.”

Toppert, too, likes his chances with a roster full of pro players playing around the globe and all of whom have some sort of connection with him from their basketball pasts.

“I wouldn’t have come here if I didn’t think we did (have a chance to win it all),” Toppert said. “… I’ve got a personal relationship with these guys. I’ve worked with all these guys before. They will be familiar with the system and with each other.”

SOME LOVE: Another New Mexico connection can be found on Team Brotherly Love in 6-foot-10 former New Mexico Highlands Cowboy center Marlon Johnson.

The No. 12 Brotherly Love plays at 3 p.m. Saturday on ESPN and, if it wins over No. 21 Stillwater Stars, the team would face Toppert’s Eberlein Drive on Monday.

FRAN ON THE CALL: Longtime TBT fan and commentator Fran Fraschilla, the UNM men’s basketball coach from 1999-2002, will be one of the main broadcasters of the event and on the call for the July 12 semifinals and July 14 championship game.

Toppert says he talks via text with Fraschilla pretty much weekly now that he’s in the coaching profession. And, as the son of two former Lobo star athletes and brother of another (Chad Toppert), Cody Toppert says he isn’t above reminding Fraschilla of that every so often.

“I joke with him, you know, he didn’t recruit me to New Mexico,” Toppert said. “So that’s why I went to Cornell.”

COVID-19 DISQUALIFICATIONS: TBT has a lengthy pretournament COVID-19 protocol report that players have to undergo to qualify to compete, including administering what the event coordinators have reported were nearly 1,400 COVID-19 tests.

Any positive test on a team from a player or coach results in a disqualification of the entire team.

Three teams this past week, and four overall, have been removed as a result of positive COVID-19 tests, the most recent being Friday afternoon. There are no alternate teams remaining in Columbus ready to fill in who, like the original 24 teams in the bracket, have already gone through the required pretournament testing, precautions and protocols.

“Although it’s difficult to release the teams that we have, we’re following our plan to control the spread of the virus within our bubble here in Columbus,” said Jon Mugar, TBT founder and CEO.

The tourney has reportedly administered nearly 1,400 tests with 31 positive results — five of them being since the teams started reporting to Columbus. All five of those on the three teams were removed this week.

Alford said he isn’t concerned about the health risks because of the aggressive approach the tournament has taken toward player safety.

“They’re doing a really good job of making sure it’s very strict and controlled, so I’m not so much worried about it,” Alford said. “It’s not too concerning. I think if it was just a regular event, then it would be worrisome, but they’re doing a good job.”

TBT Info Box

• The Basketball Tournament (website)
• Saturday through July 14
• Columbus, Ohio
• 24 team, single elimination tournament
• $1 million winner take all
• All 23 games to broadcast on ESPN or ESPN2

New Mexico connections:
• Former UNM Lobo coach Fran Fraschilla is one of three broadcasters calling the action
• Albuquerque Academy graduate Cody Toppert is coaching No. 5 seed Eberlein Drive (first round bye into round of 16, first game Monday 5 p.m. on ESPN)
• La Cueva High School graduate Bryce Alford plays for No. 7 seed The Money Team (first round bye into round of 16, first game Thursday at noon on ESPN)
• Former New Mexico Highlands forward Marlon Johnson plays for Team Brotherly Love (Plays Saturday at 3 p.m. on ESPN)

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