More than seven years after Pitt’s memorable run to the Elite Eight came up just short against Villanova, then-Panthers point guard Levance Fields got another chance to reach a different Final Four — this time with $2 million on the line.
But just like that loss in the 2009 Regional Final, Fields and his team of Pitt alums walked off the court in defeat after a heart-wrenching finish. This time around, it wasn’t the NCAA tournament he and his teammates were knocked out of — it was the 2016 edition of The Basketball Tournament.
Like March Madness, TBT — founded in 2014 by Jon Mugar — is an annual five-on-five, single-elimination basketball tournament. But instead of just bragging rights, the 64 teams are competing for a winner takes all $2 million prize.
Fields helped lead a new team of Pitt alumni known as The Untouchables to three wins in a row in the 2016 TBT, including a win over a team of Syracuse alums in a renewal of the classic Big East rivalry. But after jumping out to a 13-point halftime lead over No. 1-seeded City of Gods in the Elite Eight, The Untouchables let the advantage slip away in the second half of an 85-79 defeat.
“It’s a terrible feeling,” Fields said. “It brought back the emotions and memories of being close and not making it to the Final Four, especially this being an even bigger prize with $2 million on the line.”
Fields, of course, was one of the “Big Three” — along with forward Sam Young and center DeJuan Blair — on Pitt’s 2008-09 team. That team ascended to the No. 1 ranking in the country for the first time in school history and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, only to lose on a last-second shot by Villanova’s Scottie Reynolds in the 2009 Elite Eight.
A senior at the time, Fields had just hit two clutch free throws with six seconds left to tie the game, only to watch Reynolds put an end to his college career. This time, though, Fields has a shot at redemption — but with an entirely new cast of teammates.
Former Pitt guard Brad Wanamaker, another star on last year’s TBT team and a standout professional player in Germany, will miss this year’s tournament while getting set to compete in the NBA’s Summer League. Several other players got hurt, so the remaining members of The Untouchables merged with a team from Baltimore. Fields, meanwhile, decided to start from scratch with a new group of some old friends.
He and General Manager Aron Minkoff scrambled to put together a team in the last two months, making calls to former Panthers who were still in game shape and interested in competing again. They emerged in early May with a new lineup and a new name inspired by Pitt’s student section — the Zoo Crew.
Fields recruited his former Pitt teammate, power forward Tyrell Biggs. Minkoff, with Fields’ help, found six more former Panthers — guards Ashton Gibbs, Keith Benjamin and Ronald Ramón and forwards Chevy Troutman, Levon Kendall and John DeGroat.
But Minkoff, a Temple University alum, still thought there was something missing — so he reached out to former Temple sharpshooter Jesse Morgan.
“I was thinking, ‘What else do we need?’ We have Ashton and Ronald, who was always a good 3-point shooter but is more of a mid-range guy now,” Minkoff said. “We didn’t have a guy who could go off for a 30- or 40-point game at any moment, which is what Jesse did at Temple.”
The Zoo Crew also needed a new coach, as last year’s coach Brandon Driver is still with The Untouchables. So Minkoff — a graduate of Taylor Allderdice High School — again tapped into his past connections, bringing on Allderdice Head Coach Buddy Valinsky, the 2016 PIAA Class AAAA Coach of the Year.
“If you look at all the great teams, they all have great coaches. That’s why we went out and got Buddy,” Minkoff said. “I think he’ll really be the X factor for us.”
Valinsky, though, seems content to let Fields run the show until his input is needed.
“Being a point guard as I played in college, I know the point guard is usually the coach on the floor, and that’s where I’ll be leaning heavily on Levance Fields,” Valinsky said. “He knows how to run it, he knows who’s hot, who’s not. He will be the extension on the court and I will piggy back off him when he needs some help.”
Fields won’t be the only floor general in the Zoo Crew’s backcourt, as he and Gibbs will likely split time at the position. Gibbs succeeded Fields as Pitt’s point guard from 2009-2012 and enjoyed a successful career while leading the Panthers to a No. 1 seed in the 2011 NCAA tournament.
Gibbs may act as more of a scorer while Fields plays the role of distributor, but he should be able to help lighten Fields’ load this time around.
“It’s going to be fun. I think we complement each other well,” Fields said. “Me being able to break down the defense, him being a shooter. I think it should help and I look forward to it.”
Fields said it was a great experience getting to reunite with his former teammates last year, even if it didn’t end as planned. And although he says the team’s mindset is to take things “one game at a time,” the Brooklyn native is well aware that if the team makes it through the first two rounds in Philadelphia, he’ll have the opportunity to play the next two games in his hometown.
“Without question, without trying to look forward, that’s definitely enticing knowing the Sweet 16 round is in Brooklyn, getting a chance to play in front of my family and friends if I make it that far,” Fields said. “That’s why we’re trying to take it one game at a time, focus on [first-round opponent] Sideline Cancer and go from there.”
If Fields and the No. 5-seeded Zoo Crew do make it back to the Sweet 16, they’ll likely run into some familiar faces. The Northeast Region’s No. 1 seed goes by the name FCM Untouchables, made up of many of Fields’ former TBT teammates.
And maybe if they make it past the Elite Eight and into the Final Four, they’ll get a shot at the No. 1 seed in the South Region and two-time defending champion Overseas Elite.
With a lineup including local hoops legends D.J. Kennedy and DeAndre Kane of Schenley High School, Overseas Elite’s roster was already scary, and their championship pedigree is undeniable. With a three-peat now in reach, they went out and added the 6-foot-7, 270-pound Blair — their former high school teammate and one of the best players in Pitt basketball history.
Pitt alums vs. Schenley grads. Fields vs. Blair, eight years later. One can dream, right?
The Basketball Tournament begins Saturday, July 8. Zoo Crew faces No. 12 seed Sideline Cancer in its first-round matchup in Philadelphia.