The Fort Wayne Champs are back in The Basketball Tournament after getting left out in 2020 and this time they have a seasoned coach running the show.
Steve Gansey, who led the Mad Ants from 2015 to 2020, will coach a pair of his former players, Steph Hicks and Ramon Harris, in the 64-team, single elimination summer basketball extravaganza with a $1 million winner-take-all prize on the line. Another former Mad Ant, Bruno Caboclo, who was a member of the 2014 team that won the NBA D-League title, is also on the Champs' roster.
“It's huge, just having that familiarity with him, that chemistry with him,” Hicks said of playing for Gansey. “I played under him for five seasons, so he knows what spots I like. Especially with the other guys too, just having him around is going is going to be huge for us.”
Gansey laid down his expectations for the team Thursday during the Champs' first workout at the Ash Center, with banners of players he coached with the Mad Ants hanging on the wall behind him.
“I don't want iso one-on-one ball,” Gansey said. “I want to run.”
He later added: “If you're not playing well, you're going to sit.”
For his part, Gansey has spent the year since his tenure with the Mad Ants ended watching a lot of college basketball and further developing his coaching philosophy. He had always been “intrigued” by The Basketball Tournament, but he was never able to coach in it because he was under contract with the Pacers.
“This opportunity came about and I said, 'Absolutely,'” Gansey said. “I talked to Steph Hicks and Ramon and they were like 'We'd love for you to coach us,' so I said, 'Sure, no problem.' ”
The Champs have a history of success in TBT, reaching the semifinals in 2015 and the final 16 in 2018, but were left out of the compressed 24-team field in 2020. Selected to compete again this year, they were given a No. 9 seed in the West Virginia region and will take on No. 8 seed PrimeTime Players, a group featuring nine-year NBA veteran and former Indiana Pacer Trevor Booker.
The Champs practiced in Fort Wayne on Thursday and Friday and then worked out in West Virginia on Saturday night. They'll open play tonight at the Charleston Coliseum and Convention Center.
“You have to just leave it all out there,” said Champs guard Taylor Persons, a three-time All-MAC selection at Ball State. “You gotta win it all, if you (only) win the second game it doesn't matter, so I just say we play free, have fun ... and just enjoy it.”
In addition to Persons and the Mad Ants, the Fort Wayne roster features city native Trevion Crews, the 2014 SAC Player of the Year at North Side and a two-time NAIA All-American at Bethel. Also in the fold is Indianapolis native and former Tom Crean-era Indiana wing Devin Davis. It's a roster that has, as Hicks put it, a lot of young talent. All that ability gives Gansey options.
“I like our athleticism, I think we're going to be quick,” the coach said. “I want to play fast, but we gotta be able to sit down and defend. We have a lot of big wings, 6-5 or above, that we can throw out there and mix up a lot of different defenses. But we're going to attack mismatches, that's how I've always coached, you see a mismatch we're going to try to exploit it.”
If the Champs win tonight, they'll play again Monday, potentially taking on No. 1 seed Sideline Cancer, a team that reached the tournament finals in 2020. Sideline Cancer features a pair of former Indiana players in Maurice Creek and Remy Abell.
The Basketball Tournament
Fort Wayne Champs
vs. PrimeTime Players
When: 7 p.m. today
Where: Charleston Coliseum and Convention Center, Charleston, W.Va.