On Sunday, former Arkansas star guard J.D. Notae was at Team Arkansas training camp preparing for this week’s The Basketball Tournament (TBT). On Monday morning, he broke the news to Team Arkansas head coach/co-general manager Monty Patel that he wouldn’t be playing in the decade-old event.
Notae’s sudden change of heart was the third recent de-commitment Patel has endured and the seventh player who initially committed only to pull out. Former Arkansas basketball standouts Jimmy Whitt and Courtney Fortson also informed Patel recently they will not be playing in the ESPN-created hoops tournament featuring former college players – most of whom now play internationally or in a minor league in the United States.
Such is the life of an always-hustling TBT coach.
“You just have to play with the guys that can be here,” said Patel, who finished his first season as the eStem Charter School head varsity boys coach last winter after serving stints as an assistant at Jacksonville, North Little Rock and Marion.
The Notae news may have been the most stunning and impactful. The explosive guard showed up for training camp at HoopLife Academy in Pulaski County where Patel is a director. When he changed his mind, he not only didn’t bother with a phone call, but he also didn’t offer much insight on why.
But, in three years of trying to court players to play in a tournament they won’t be paid for unless they win (the purse is one million dollars distributed amongst the roster), this isn’t the only ‘Dear John’ text Patel has received.
“Normally, the text says something about personal matters and that is about it,” Patel said.
So, like all coaches would, Patel is saying the right thing. ‘You don’t worry about who isn’t on your team and focus on who is.’
“We aren’t going to sit here and cry about it – we are grown men and professionals,” said former Hog forward Adrio Bailey, a defensive maven who now plays in Slovenia. “We are moving on, and that is a decision they will have to live with. We are all going to work hard to win.”
So far, so good. Bailey scored 15 points on Friday to help Arkansas beat the Kansas State alumni team including former Razorback Abayomi Iyiola by a score of 63-52. Hunter Mickelson led Arkansas with 19 points, while Brandon Wood chipped in 18. For the game, TBT Arkansas outscored the Purple & Black in the paint, 40-18 on 80% shooting (20 of 25).
Kansas State’s Purple & Black squad also listed Desi Sills, the former Razorback and Red Wolf, on its roster but Sills didn’t suit up on Thursday or Friday.
Arkansas Basketball Nowhere Near Full Strength
However, the reality of losing those three former Hogs standouts is a big blow when it comes to having a legit shot to win the TBT Tournament’s $1 million purse. Not only from a talent standpoint, but Patel doesn’t have many bodies available. The Basketball Tournament doesn’t allow transactions after July 1, so Notae couldn’t be replaced.
The roster now includes nine players but former Razorbacks star Sonny Weems didn’t play in Thursday’s opener against a Colorado State team in Wichita, Kan., because he was orchestrating his annual week of charity activities in his hometown of West Memphis. Fortunately for Weems, Team Arkansas won that game 70-58 over Colorado State alumni before beating Kansas State the next day. Weems missed that second game, too.
Weems, who stars in China, is the team’s top player and scoring threat. He and Bailey are the only players on the team that finished their careers with the Razorbacks. Hunter Mickelson, who assists Patel at eStem, finished his career at Kansas and Dustin Thomas transferred from Colorado to play out his college career with the Hogs.
On Thursday, Thomas joined Mickelson led the team with 13 points, while Adrio Bailey had a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds.
TBT basketball rules say an alumni team must consist of six players with ties from that school and then GMs can fill in the rest with whoever they can recruit. One of the players Patel has called on is former Mississippi State big man Jarvis Varnardo, who tied the SEC season blocked shots record with Shaquille O’Neal and was a second-round pick of the Miami Heat in 2010. At 35, he’s still playing professionally overseas after trying to latch on with an NBA team earlier in his career.
Team Arkansas Relying on Former Hogs… and Frog
“The big thing with this team is we have some vets like Sonny,” said Mickelson who did not play professionally this season in order to settle into his new teaching and coaching role with Patel. “Our strength is going to be experience. We have talked a lot off the court, and I think with the veteran leadership we have that will help us come together as a team. I’ve already seen some good things in practice.”
One major late pickup Co-GMs Patel and Weems have made is the addition of former TCU standout point guard Alex Robinson. After starring in the Dallas metroplex as a prep point guard, he signed with Texas A&M but eventually landed with TCU and became the school’s all-time assist leader and helped the Horned Frogs to the NCAA Tournament in 2018 – the school’s first berth in 20 years. Since then, he’s made a tour of the G-League and is now playing overseas.
“I am taking this as a great opportunity,” said Bailey, who is making his TBT debut. “It is a chance to get some media exposure and play with guys from different backgrounds. I am glad to have a chance to play in [the The Basketball Tournament].
The problem is not all players see it that way, which Patel understands. Some of the professional players who have either signed big contracts, or younger players who soon will, don’t want to risk playing in a tournament that will not offer any compensation other than a purse.
Patel said Team Arkansas is at a disadvantage compared to others such as the Syracuse basketball alums. That group, Patel said, have a booster who has contributed up to $150,000 to fuel the team. Patel said some players are offered a $15,000 one-game guarantee.
TBT Tournament: A Harder Knock Life for Arkansas
He and Weems have tried to attract sponsors but so far have just enough to cover some meals and travels.
“We just try to break even,” Patel said. “One year, I had to pay $1,000 out of my own pocket. It’s OK, it’s a lot of fun.”
What could bolster the Team Arkansas operation is landing a regional. Patel said the University of Arkansas and Arkansas-Little Rock both could be options. If the team played in Arkansas, Patel said that would help draw more players to the team and would help the financial standing of the operation because Team Arkansas would get a cut of the gate and could pay players more. Wichita State fans have embraced the TBT tournament and have some of the top attendance marks in the 10-year history of the tournament.
“It would help us a ton to play [in Arkansas],” he said. “I know fans would support it here.”
For now, Patel and Co. are trying to make a splash as the No. 3 seed in the field with a small but committed group. The Basketball Tournament for Arkansas continues on Sunday, with the team playing in the third round against the Wichita State alumni at 4 PM central on ESPNU. Trey Wade, the former Razorback, hit the game-winning shot for the AfterShocks after helping his team come back from a 21-point deficit against Memphis alumni.
“We are just trying to evaluate who we have and put them in the best positions to be successful,” Patel said. “We feel good about the guys we have.”
See JD Notae do this thing in Greece below (fair warning: you may want to turn volume down):