Feature: Three recent graduates take part in The Basketball Tournament

When Pat Fisher found Matt Krmpotich, it was a coincidence. 

The Pitt senior had been looking for Krmpotich for two weeks. They had crossed paths often before at Trees Hall playing pickup basketball. Now Fisher had an offer for the 6-foot-6-inch Krmpotich, but he didn’t know his last name, creating a seemingly unsolvable problem — until fate intervened at Garage Door Saloon. 

Fisher had had no intention of going to G-Door, but he went to the local Oakland bar that night to see his girlfriend when he ran into Krmpotich.

“I walked in, and lo and behold, Matt’s standing there,” Fisher said. 

Fisher needed to find Krmpotich because he had had begun to put together a basketball team, and wanted Krmpotich to join. Fisher’s proposal was not just about any pickup or intramural team. Rather, he was making a basketball team to play in The Basketball Tournament. 

The Basketball Tournament is just what the name suggests — a mix of amateurs and pros in 32 squads will compete for free this weekend at Philadelphia University for a $500,000 cash prize, offered by a Boston-based investment group headed by founder Jon Mugar, for the champion. This is the inaugural year for the event. Three recent Pitt grads will be among the players. 

Krmpotich, of course, accepted Fisher’s offer. 

The timing was impeccable, as rosters froze the next day, May 1.

“It was really unexpected,” Krmpotich said. “I just thought it was so funny, I wasn’t even really gonna go out that night, I remember. All of a sudden my friends dragged me out. ‘Come on, it’s our last night you should probably go.’  I was just so tired. I’m really glad I made the decision to head out that night because I wouldn’t have run into Pat otherwise.”

Team Pup N’ Suds, its name inspired by the late ‘90s Disney Channel movie “Brink!,” plays Friday at 1:45 p.m.

Krmpotich, a varsity rower at Boston University before transferring to Pitt as a junior, had heard about the event back in February when the sports and pop culture website Grantland ran a story about the intriguing concept when it launched.

But the effort to get into the Tournament didn’t end with Krmpotich’s commitment, nor had it started there.

Social media had  a large role in promoting the Tournament. A team’s qualification depended on its ability to recruit “fans” to the Tournament’s website to complete a quick and commitment-free signup. At the beginning of April, after finding out about the Tournament from a friend back home who had begun to get a team qualified, Fisher started and led his own effort for the team.

“I got my entire family to [join] and I have a pretty big family. And then I literally was on Facebook 24/7. I was messaging people from high school, people who were wondering why I was talking to them. ‘Hey, I need your help real quick,’” Fisher said. “Whenever I was working, whenever I had some free time I was always on there getting people to sign up.” 

Other team members did the same, a necessity since Pup N’ Suds didn’t have the built-in following of teams like Barstool Boston or Barstool Philadelphia to rely on. This lack of a reputation and the fervor with which team members campaigned for support has made it the consensus underdog pick of the tournament, as proclaimed by outlets like Sports Illustrated.

Their efforts paid off. The team ended up with 462 fans, good for 19th, comfortably getting in as one of the top 24 auto-qualifiers. The final eight teams were picked by the Tournament organizers.  

With an assessed talent score of 13 out of 100 on the Tournament’s website, the lowest of participating teams, the guys on Pup N’ Suds knew they would be picked by one of the top four vote getters as an opponent. Sure enough, Philly Patriots, the No. 2 seed, selected them.  

Consisting of former University of Virginia star and professional player Sean Singletary, as well as a number of past D-I players, on paper, the Patriots figure to have a massive advantage.

Some other members of Pup N’ Suds include a 6-foot-8-inch high school friend of Fisher’s, Jack Roberts, a 2014 graduate from Middlebury College where he played varsity basketball all four years. Roberts enlisted the help of teammate Albert Nascimento. Wally Rutecki, who played against Fisher and Roberts in high school and played at Susquehanna University, also joined the team. The 10 members on the roster have at least high school experience playing basketball.

“We’re not going in there with kids that can’t dribble or anything,” Fisher said.

Many on the team live in or are from the Philadelphia area, and have practiced together a few days a week near Krmpotich’s home in Conshohocken, Pa., where his former youth coach owns and operates a gym, or at Swarthmore College.

But there are also some who will play Friday who don’t live in the area, like the final Pitt student on the team, Ryan Badzgon. He’ll travel from Charleston, W.Va., where he now works. 

“I have been making my way up to the local YMCA whenever I get the chance – either lifting weights, shooting around or playing pickup ball,” Badzgon, a chemical and petroleum engineering major, said in an email.

Doing so hasn’t been easy.

“It’s been crazy since starting my new job. I’ve been working a lot of 10-12 hour days, often in remote locations in West Virginia,” he said. “I’ve just been trying to put in as much time as possible.”

But for Badzgon, who said he was “ecstatic” when Fisher, his friend since freshman year, asked him to play on the team, that’s what it takes when an opportunity like this comes along. 

“To go out there and try to run with these guys. Who knows, maybe we can pull off an upset or two,” he said. “It’s an incredible opportunity, and I’m just excited to be a part of it.”