Members of V.I. Men’s Basketball Look to Take on $2 Million Tournament

Laron Smith in last year’s edition of The Basketball Tournament. (Photo courtesy of Laron Smith)

Four Virgin Islanders aim to play on Tampa 20/20 in this year’s edition of The Basketball Tournament, typically a 64-team single elimination tournament where the winning team takes home $2 million.

Laron Smith, power forward for the Virgin Islands National Team and former Auburn Tiger, has been a part of Tampa 20/20 for three years, including last year when Tampa 20/20 lost 79-76 to Team CP3, coached and owned by 10-time NBA All-Star and current member of the Oklahoma City Thunder Chris Paul.

Smith said he learned from experience that “it’s win or go home. You have to put everything on the line every game because the way everyone competes, they are trying to get the money. You can’t let up on nobody. We were up 20 points on Team CP3, and they came back because we let our foot off the gas and they won that game.”

On Wednesday, the TBT announced that the tournament will still take place this summer, but with just 24 teams over 10 days in one location, which has yet to be decided, as opposed to the usual format of 64 teams across eight regional sites and three weeks of play.

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Smith said he feels Tampa 20/20 is in a good position to be selected as one of the 24 teams because of some big-name players the team was able to add, and their big fan base.

Smith was able to recruit his friends Walter Hodge and Justin Gray, and his cousin Shaun Willett, to this year’s Tampa 20/20 team.

Hodge, a point guard for the Virgin Islands National Team and two-time national champion for the Florida Gators, will also be joining Smith this summer, and Smith thinks his presence on the court and experience will be beneficial to the team.

Willett, who graduated from Queens College in 2019, was the NCAA’s double-double leader with 27 and an All-American in his senior season according to the Division 2 Conference Commissioners’ Association.

Willett played for another team in last year’s TBT and is an example of the opportunities the exposure in this tournament provides. He signed for the Iowa Wolves, an NBA G-League team and the minor league affiliate of the Minnesota Timberwolves after his performances in the 2019 edition of the TBT.

Gray played for Texas Tech in college and overseas for the Bristol Flyers of the British Basketball League. Smith expects Gray to be with the national team for the upcoming AmeriCup qualifying window that is scheduled to take place in November.

Gray averaged 13.6 points over the 31 games he played in the 2018-19 British Basketball League season.

In the last Virgin Islands victory over Cuba on Feb. 21, Hodge had 22 points, eight rebounds and six assists, while Smith put up eight points and pulled in seven rebounds while swatting away a shot in the 80-64 win. The Virgin Islands sit at 1-1 in their FIBA AmeriCup Qualifying group standings after falling to Cuba on Feb. 24. The team still has four games to play in that competition.

Smith said he sees The Basketball Tournament as a chance to build chemistry with his Virgin Islands teammates before the next round of games in the AmeriCup qualifiers.

Tampa 20/20 also includes three other Auburn players: Bryce Brown, Horace Spencer and Desean Murray.

Brown and Spencer were members of Auburn’s first NCAA tournament Final Four team in 2019.

With the additions of Hodge and Brown to the backcourt, Tampa 20/20 is ranked as the third most improved team from last year’s tournament according the TBT’s panel.

Brown shot 42 percent last year on his three-point attempts in the last NBA G-League season for the Maine Red Claws, the minor league affiliate for the Boston Celtics.

The tournament adopted the “Elam Ending,” a system that was created to make the end of basketball games more exciting.

The Elam Ending takes effect after the first stoppage with under four minutes on the clock. The game clock is then turned off and a target score is set by adding eight points to the leading team’s score, and the game ends after the first team reaches that number.

For example, if the ball goes out of play with 3:59 left on the clock and the score is 80-78, the first team to score 88 points wins.

Smith said he thinks this ending “is the best thing ever” and it is good for teams that are trailing towards the end of the game. “It allows teams to come back” because “if a team is thinking they can run the clock out, there is no clock, you have to play defense and you have to score without worrying if the clock is going to run out,” he said.

To help increase the chances of Tampa 20/20 being in this year’s field you can support Tampa 20/20 by registering as a fan and following them on Twitter and Instagram.

If selected as one of the 24 teams, Smith expects the team “to take it game by game.”

“We can’t force it,” he said. “Think of every game as a challenge and hopefully we can make it further than the year before.”

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