On Thursday afternoon at DeMatha High School, the local basketball squad called DMV’s Finest held its first practice in preparation to compete for $500,000. A camera crew, tracking the journeys of seven teams up and down the East Coast, came to document the occasion. One star player took set shots in flip-flop sandals, sidelined by a sprained ankle. Another limped around with a torn Achilles’ tendon. Only one player present was healthy enough to work out, so he scrimmaged against some Maryland students brought in as a scout team.
It wasn’t the full roster running four-on-four. Not even close. Just former Loyola forward Erik Etherly hopping around and making layups. But earlier that day, DMV’s Finest formally learned that it had reached the 32-team field for The Basketball Tournament, a high-stakes event in Philadelphia from June 6-8. That, in itself, was cause for triumph.
“I feel like things have even slowed down a little bit,” said Ross Aroyo, a junior at Maryland who is serving as one of the team’s administrators. “Things were so busy before we got in that we needed to go full-throttle. Now it shifts towards the players to get their work in and build the chemistry and get ready for the tournament.”
A crowded bracket will feature plenty of star power, of recognizable names from past years in college basketball. Six former NBA players will play for Team Barstool, named after the popular Web site, and Big Apple Basketball has three. Two former college squads have gotten the gang back together: Cornell’s Sweet 16 team and Villanova’s Final Four team. Team FOE’s back court features Josh Selby (Kansas) and Malik Wayns (Villanova). Local standout Aquille Carr surrounded himself with former Miami big men Kenny Kadji and Julian Gamble on Rep Your City, and TYGTAL has Hakim Warrick (Syracuse) and Marshall Henderson (Ole Miss).
DMV’s Finest, while still stocked with Division I players, took care in building a balanced roster, rounded out with the recent additions of gunner Terrell Stoglin (Maryland) and Rashad Whack (Mount St. Mary’s), who slid onto the team after Isaiah Tate ruptured his Achilles’.
“The most talented team is not going to win this,” Etherly said. “It’s going to be the team who can play together as a unit, a team that plays the best defense, and a team that makes the most free throws. It’s going to be one of those times where people will foul a lot to stop you from scoring, because of the amount of money that’s on the line.”
Ah yes. The money. A winner-take-all bracket for $500,000, part of which DMV’s Finest would donate to the Zaching Against Cancer Foundation, to honor former Maryland student manager Zach Lederer, who died of cancer in March.
“Oh, I’ve thought about it already,” said Austin Freeman, a Georgetown guard from the late 2000s currently dealing with a sprained ankle. “It’s win or go home, pretty much. If you lose in the championship, you get nothing. We’re playing for a lot. And everyone knows that.”
Over the next several weeks, as the start date draws near, DMV’s Finest plans to hold more open practices and scrimmages with the Maryland men’s basketball team. More pieces will trickle back from overseas, like former Georgetown guard Chris Wright (from France), Jerai Grant (Latvia) and Stoglin (Italy). John Auslander, the Maryland senior, will serve as player-coach. And thoughts of early June — and the pot of gold at the end of the bracket – will loom over them.
“I probably wouldn’t be playing if it wasn’t for the money,” said Etherly, who recently returned from averaging 23.2 points per game in Israel. “This is supposed to be my down time. I just got back from overseas. I’m a little tired. Between playing for Zach’s cancer cause and the money, I said okay, I’ll keep going for a little longer. Either one of the two, if we were playing for Zach or playing for the money, would get me to do it. But the combination of the two is something you can’t pass up.”
The bracket and matchups will be released on May 22.
Said Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon in a statement: “I think it’s fantastic for the local DMV talent to band together for such a great cause. Zach has been such an inspiration to our school and community. It is great that former Terps and Hoyas joined together for this important cause. I hope that DMV’s Finest raises national awareness for the Zaching Against Cancer Foundation and advances far in this summer’s tournament.”