The Men of Mackey, a 10-man team made up of five former Purdue basketball players and others from various colleges, will play its first game at The Basketball Tournament in Columbus, Ohio on Sunday.
Purdue's official alumni team, coached by former Boilermaker guard Ryne Smith, will play at 7 p.m. on Sunday as a 19-seed in a group of 24. The game will be broadcast live on ESPN 2, and no fans will be present to watch at the arena.
The team, which first practiced Thursday night, features five former Purdue players: center Isaac Haas, forward Evan Boudreaux, guard Jon Octeus, guard Johnny Hill and center Jacquil Taylor. The team is managed by Ryan Kay, a Purdue alumnus.
The single-elimination tournament, in its seventh year despite the coronavirus outbreak considerably reducing its scope, begins Saturday with the Round of 24 and is set to finish July 14, according to TBT's website. The prize to the winner is $1.2 million, as listed on the tournament's website, and at most the Men of Mackey can play five games.
Playing during a pandemic
Players and staff have lived in quarantine and are being tested regularly, TBT's website states. The event was initially set to take place in nine different cities but was confined to Columbus when the pandemic prompted governments to impose limitations on travel and large gatherings.
Kay said every member of the tournament was forced to self-quarantine for 15 days before arriving on Tuesday at the Hyatt Hotel in Columbus. Players conducted at-home saliva tests twice last week, and were tested again upon arrival.
"They say we're in a bubble," Kay said, "and I would say the bubble is really tight."
Even so, he said, two teams have been disqualified after members tested positive for the virus today following practices on Thursday. To prevent an outbreak, TBT hired a Johns Hopkins University epidemiologist to assist in managing the event.
Teams are prohibited from interacting with one another, Kay said. No one involved in the tournament is allowed to leave the hotel for any purpose but to practice, gather in a team meeting room or play games. There are four practice courts, each equipped with an exercise bike, weights and basketballs, all of which are disinfected after each team finishes its two-hour practice session.
Haas, who has spent recent years as a member of the Utah Jazz's NBA G-League affiliate the Salt Lake City Stars, appeared wearing a blue latex glove on his right hand during a Zoom press conference with reporters. Traveling in the airport made him uneasy, he said, but he's been wearing gloves and a mask to stay safe.
"I feel like I have a pretty strong immune system, so I know that if I were to get sick that I probably wouldn't show any symptoms," he said. "And it's not really just about me, I'm more worried about giving it to other people."
Boudreaux, who finished his Purdue career this year, said during the press conference that he's been able to practice despite widespread closings of fitness centers and basketball courts.
"It's been a crazy couple months. Everything happened so quickly," he said. "I've been lucky. I have a half-court at my house in my basement and I was fortunate enough to be able to use a gym in my local town."
The Tyler Trent connection
It was Kay's idea to start the team, he said, as a result of envy of Ohio State University alumni who won the tournament last year. Though Haas and Octeus have participated in the tournament in previous years, this is the first time Purdue has an official stake in the games.
With the idea to begin the team followed the idea to honor Tyler Trent's legacy, Kay said of the revered Purdue super-fan who died of bone cancer at the beginning of 2019. The prize money would be divided between the 10 players, the coach and Kay, he said, and he plans to donate 100% of his winnings to the Tyler Trent Cancer Research Endowment if the Men of Mackey win.
"If we win the $1.2 million prize, a portion of our funds will be donated to Tyler's cancer research endowment at Purdue," Kay said. "We don't make any money at all if we don't win. It's winner-take-all."
Kay said he expects other players to donate portions of their earnings to the foundation, as well. Trent's image has been honored in numerous way since his death, including the creation of The Tyler Trent Gate at Ross-Ade Stadium and more than $2 million in funds raised after the Purdue Center for Cancer Research created the endowment.
"What Tyler represented for our University was incredible," Smith, who's coaching the team, said during the press conference. "Just the strength he showed, the Trent family — it's an incredible family. I'm honored to be a part of ... honoring Tyler's legacy that he left behind in West Lafayette, and actually nationwide. To play for something bigger than yourself is obviously a great opportunity."
Can the Men of Mackey win it all?
Kay said Thursday night's practice was a walkthrough, with implementing plays and shooting drills as the main focus. The pace ramped up during Friday morning's practice, with players scrimmaging and working up a sweat.
The team has gelled well, Kay said, and he expects the cohesion to translate to a win Sunday.
"I certainly have the optimism to do so," Smith said when asked if the Men of Mackey would win five games for the championship. "It's all about when you get hot. The team that gets hot has a great chance to win it."
The first-round matchup is against Heartfire, a 14-seed, and if the Men of Mackey win, their next game will be against 3-seed Boeheim's Army at 4 p.m. on Tuesday. Games beyond the first round will be broadcast live on ESPN.
The website Sports Betting has given the Purdue alumni 75-1 odds to win the tournament.
Boudreaux said the former Boilermakers will fare well, in large part because of the style of offense the players learned playing for longtime head coach Matt Painter.
"A lot of the Purdue guys already know each other and we already know a lot of the offensive stuff," Boudreaux said. "And we all play team basketball. In an event like this, you gotta really be connected on both sides of the floor and I think for us, we're gonna play really hard and get after teams.
"That's something that's non-negotiable with Purdue guys."