Beavers Duo Set to Represent #WeAreD3TBT in West Regional on Saturday Night
BABSON PARK, Mass.—Although their college careers ended with confetti falling from the rafters of the Salem Civic Center following their victory in the 2017 NCAA Division III national championship game, Babson College men's basketball alums Matthew Droney '17 and Joey Flannery '17 have teamed up to take part in the fifth edition of The Basketball Tournament (TBT).
The duo is part of D3 with Droney on the sidelines as an assistant coach, and Flannery as one of nine former Division III All-Americans on the roster. D3 is seeded 13th in the west region of the 72-team event, which was started by Belmont, Mass., native Jon Mugar and childhood friend Dan Friel in 2014.
Now in its fifth summer, TBT has grown into a massive event that attracts top professional players, alumni from top Division I programs and celebrity general managers and coaches on the sidelines. In 2017, 68 former NBA players participated in the tournament and 14 players from last year's event went on to sign NBA contracts over the last year. Additionally, the winning team earns $2 million, every game is televised on the ESPN networks, and TBT recently signed a multi-year agreement with Puma, which includes endorsement deals for any players signing NBA contracts following the tournament.
Despite plenty of star power, TBT also is about the fans. The tournament is made up of four slots for defending regional champions, 16 at-large picks, 16 teams who buy a spot for $5,000, and 36 squads that qualify through fan voting. The top 100 boosters for the team that wins TBT in 2018 will split $200,000 for their support.
D3 is Born
When D3 takes the floor at California State University-Los Angeles on July 14, it will mark the culmination of months of effort put in by Droney and head coach Michael Rejniak, who worked together as assistant coaches at Vassar College last year. "The idea was Mike's initially," said Droney. "I reached out to a buddy of mine, Dan Gould, that played at Framingham State and works for TBT. He brought it up to Friel and Mugar, who is a Division III guy, and they liked the idea (of having a D3 team). One of the things they had been looking to have in the tournament was a team like this."
With a plan in place to put a squad together, Droney and Rejniak worked on building their roster, which had to include nine players by June 1. "We reached out to just about every Division III head coach in the country and the feedback was great," commented Droney. "All of a sudden, we had 75 high-level players we had to comb through."
"Initially, our idea was to have a training camp in May with 25-30 guys to see what we had and make the team based on that. Asking guys to get on a plane to come out (to Boston) for a camp and potentially get cut, and even for the guys that did make it, to ask them to fly back out in a month for practice we felt was unrealistic. We realized we needed to pick our nine guys for the team, although it was difficult because we didn't get to see guys play together. It came down to a judgement call for us."
Although some top players were unable to commit to playing for D3 for logistical reasons, Droney and Rejniak had plenty of talent at their disposal. Flannery, the 2017 D3hoops.com and NABC Player of the Year, will be joined by current Amherst assistant coach Aaron Toomey, who was recruited by Rejniak and went on to win national player of the year honors for the Mammoths in 2014. They also received commitments from 2007 D3hoops.com Player of the Year Ben Strong of Guilford, who spent parts of four seasons in the NBA Developmental League, and 37-year-old Jeff Gibbs of Otterbein.
The former college basketball and football star, Gibbs was a must for the team according to Droney. "He was a guy we really wanted. I know he's going to play well and we thought he could be the leader of the group. He's been a pro in Europe for 15 seasons, knows how to go about his business, and from a culture standpoint can show these guys the way."
Flannery, who spent last season playing in Spain's second division, raved about the team's recent three-day training camp, which allowed everyone to get to know each other better. "It's a great feeling being out on the court with so many premier guys from the Division III level," Flannery said. "I don't know if I've been a part of a run with this much talent and it's special to be a part of. We all had a lot of fun and played with great pride preparing to represent D3."
As D3 worked on its roster, it also had to make sure it earned a place in the tournament through the fan vote. For Droney and Rejniak it meant getting the word out about what they were trying to do. "For us to get votes we worked a lot through social media," commented Droney. "We also made a lot of phone calls and sent a lot of emails to coaches, and the players helped as well because most of them have a good brand and people know who they are. Most importantly, the guys at D3hoops were awesome, they tweeted about (having fans support us) all the time, and put a link up on their website to the voting page."
Although they originally planned on playing in the northeast, a move to the west would almost ensure their spot in this year's event. "As the process got underway, the northeast region was the most competitive," according to Droney. "The deadline to change regions was June 1, we talked to (Dan) Friel about it and decided to make the change because it gave us the best chance to get in. As it turned out, we would have placed in the top nine in the northeast had we stayed, which is a testament to the support we ended up getting."
Making it Happen
Along with building a roster and gaining the support of the basketball community, the biggest challenge of getting D3 off the ground for Droney and Rejniak was fundraising. "Mike and I were on the phone every day because creating a team wasn't plausible unless the money was there," Droney said. "We received a lot of good advice from my uncle, Jon Simons, who works as a fundraiser, on how to go about things and it's been awesome to see people donating from all over the country."
As of July 1, D3 had raised almost $9,000 with a goal of getting to $10,000. The support has been widespread, and it has allowed Droney and Rejniak to set up a first-class experience that they hope will help their team be successful when the tournament kicks off. "When we first started with the idea of putting a team together we had no idea it would gain this much traction," Droney commented. "It's been awesome, TBT has a great product and it goes to show that idea of having a Division III team is unique in the sense that it's all-encompassing. It's a division of guys that spans the whole country and is different from what TBT has had in the past, which I think excites everyone."
Ready for Primetime
When D3 takes the floor on Saturday night for their 9:20 p.m. ET tip-off against the fourth-seeded Sons of Westwood, they'll do so carrying the banner for the entire Division III basketball world. And despite going up against a group of former UCLA players that includes 14-year NBA veteran Matt Barnes and 2014 first round pick Jordan Adams, Droney knows his group will be ready.
"The goal is to win," he said. "We've watched the UCLA guys a good amount and feel like we have a couple unique skills that will give them a game. The guys are juiced up and they are fully aware that Division III basketball as a whole has never been put forward on a platform like this before, so they're excited to prove what they can do. If we win, we'll put a lot of people on notice so that's what we're going for."
Flannery agreed, and knows that an opportunity like this with a former teammate is rare. "I've been alongside Matt pretty much since prep school back in 2012, but I can't say I ever thought he would be coaching me," he commented. "(Training camp) felt a little bit like our senior year at Babson where we constantly bounced thoughts and ideas off of each other. I think I'm listening to him a little more now than I may have in the past since he's coaching us!"
As for the future, Droney hopes this is the first of many TBT appearances for D3, but either way he's confident this experience is great for him and Division III basketball. "There are a lot of people who don't know how good you have to be to play in Division III, especially at a high level," he commented. "And there is still that negative stigma toward playing non-scholarship basketball. Our whole thing, the biggest part of it is to show people around the country, show your average fan that these guys can really play."
"The first thing Dan (Friel) told me is that 'you're going to get a ton out of this,'" Droney added. "I didn't fully understand what he meant at the time, but in terms of an education for me it's been amazing. I've dealt with roster construction, fundraising, telling people no, booking flights, getting hotels and air B&Bs. Studying at Babson helped me so much with the budgeting and understanding of how thorough you have to be when going about your business. If you want something to be a good product you have to think it through."