When former Wichita State basketball player Karon Bradley was in discussion with The Basketball Tournament about forming a Shocker all-star alumni team, he promised wild things would happen if they allowed Wichita to host a regional.
Bradley wasn’t the first to promise TBT founder Jon Mugar he could put thousands of fans in seats for 64-team, single-elimination summer tournament broadcast on ESPN with a winner-take-all $2 million grand prize.
But he very well could be the first to actually pull it off, as Bradley’s vision of compiling heroes from throughout the Gregg Marshall era has resonated just like he thought it would with Shocker basketball fans.
There are still four months to go before the first game is played at Koch Arena on July 25, but the Wichita regional has already sold more than $166,000 in pre-sale tickets. The next closest? The Syracuse regional at $39,000. In fact, the Wichita regional has sold $102,520 more in ticket sales than the other seven regionals combined.
“This has been a completely overwhelming response that we’ve never seen before,” Mugar told the Eagle. “(Bradley) told us this would happen and I remember going, ‘Oh, that’s good for you to think that way...’ We had no reason to think it would be like this. The response has just been unbelievable, absolutely unbelievable.”
The TBT has pulled in alumni teams from bigger programs than WSU, but never has an alumni team generated enough interest to play in their on-campus arena. That’s why TBT estimates its attendance record sits around 3,500, which was set last summer by VCU in Richmond.
Playing in the 10,506-seat Koch Arena is a game-changer for the TBT. Ticket sales in mid-April already indicate WSU will break the attendance record. Throw in the fact that alumni teams from Kansas and Kansas State are officially entered, interest from all three fan bases in the state will only increase in the next four months.
The Aftershocks, WSU’s alumni team, plays Thursday, July 25 and could play again Saturday and Sunday at Koch Arena. WSU is selling all-session general admission passes starting at $45 at GoShockers.com or by calling the ticket office at 316-978-3267.
“We are very confident that Wichita is going to destroy that (attendance record),” Mugar said.
The players who have already committed to the Aftershocks include Cleanthony Early (2012-14), Tekele Cotton (2011-15), Conner Frankamp (2015-18), Toure’ Murry (2008-12), Joe Ragland (2010-12), Malcolm Armstead (2011-13), Clevin Hannah (2008-10), Shaquille Morris (2013-18), Rashard Kelly (2014-18), J.T. Durley (2006-11) and Garrett Stutz (2008-12).
While WSU’s response has surprised those on the national level, it’s been about expected for those who know the passion of the Shocker fan base.
“I’m not surprised at all,” WSU athletic director Darron Boatright said. “Our people are very passionate about their basketball here in Wichita. This community loves their Shockers and especially this time frame of young men who came through our program. To see them come back and play in Koch Arena is going to be special and I know our fans can’t wait.”
“We are a Wichita State Shocker family and that’s our mentality,” said Bradley, who played at WSU from 2004-07. “We still represent the city of Wichita. It’s blue-collar. It’s hard work. We’re going to bring that Play Angry mentality and the fans are going to love it.”
Alumni teams have always been the most popular teams involved in the TBT, but organizing them has always been the struggle. What Boatright and Bradley said above is the exact emotion that Mugar wants to elicit when talking about TBT.
But it’s unprecedented in his six years for a community to embrace the new-age tournament without ever being a part of it before. Mugar hopes Wichita can be the standard for other cities to chase after.
“Usually people don’t really get it until they see it up close and they realize it’s kind of a Field of Dreams deal,” Mugar said. “They get to see former past players that they used to follow come back and play with players in different eras and now they’re all way better than they were in college. It’s a very emotional experience for the players and fans.
“For Wichita to embrace this without seeing the product up close was really the most surprising thing. We’re very confident once people see the product, they’ll get it and the light bulb will go off. But Wichita already gets it.”
The winners of the eight regional tournaments advance to Chicago for the final games on August 1-6. Another incentive for the players is that regional winners receive 25 percent of the ticket sales.
That actually brings into question if Wichita’s ticket sales could in turn make the road to Chicago more difficult for the Aftershocks. After all, the Wichita regional pay-out stands at more than $41,000, four times more than the next-closest.
That kind of pay day could attract the four-time defending champion Overseas Elite, although Mugar points out he expects the pay-outs in the other regions to even out more once July rolls around. He also points out the players would have to pay their own way to Wichita for travel and housing.
Overseas Elite has qualified out of a regional on the East coast the past four years, making a regional like Richmond, Va. or Greensboro, N.C. a possibility this summer.
“You look at the ($41,000) and that’s probably the biggest cash tournament in the country by itself,” Mugar said. “That could be very tempting, but we want to give teams with the closest drive to the host city the opportunity to play in front of as many fans as possible. We would probably give priority position to (teams closer to Kansas) opposed to teams who are flying in from out of country to get that purse.”
Bradley is the co-owner of the team along with Wichita native Tien Huynh, who is also the general manager. Bradley is joined on the coaching staff by J.R. Simon, who is a current grad assistant on WSU’s coaching staff, and Zach Bush, an assistant at Eisenhower High School.
Bradley and Huynh said they have kept roster spots open in case some of the committed players are unable to attend in the summer. While basketball season in most foreign leagues wraps up in May, the NBA summer league runs through early July. If any WSU players catch on there, that could lead to a conflict.
The team has donors who will pay for lodging and food for the players to return to Wichita. Bradley and Huynh said they are aiming to have a two-week mini-camp in early July.
NBA players rarely play in the event, but there is a chance for them to be involved. Other alumni teams have had their NBA players serve as boosters, leaving the opportunity that Fred VanVleet (Toronto Raptors), Landry Shamet (Los Angeles Clippers) and Ron Baker (formerly of the New York Knicks and Washington Wizards) could be involved with the project at some point after their seasons conclude.
As for Mugar, he said there’s too much hype surrounding the Wichita regional for him to not fly in to check it out.
“I can’t wait to get to Wichita and see Koch Arena and those fans for myself,” Mugar said. “I’m really excited. Even looking at their roster, it’s the perfect type of team that I think fans are really going to embrace. I can’t wait for it.”