BETHLEHEM, Pa. – On Monday afternoon, Lehigh men’s basketball graduates Jack Lieb and David Roelke will learn if their tireless efforts to shine a spotlight on the men’s basketball talent from the Patriot League, and an opportunity to win $1 million will continue. That is when their Ex-Pats squad will find out if they’ve made 2021 TBT field during the selection show on Twitter, Facebook (@thetournament) and YouTube (@TBTBasketball).
For the unfamiliar, the TBT, short for The Basketball Tournament, is a 64-team, single-elimination men’s basketball tournament that enters its eighth summer after debuting in 2014. Teams, sometimes based on the schools or geographic regions that players hail from, are all vying for the $1 million winner-take-all prize in games that air on the ESPN family of networks.
Men’s basketball student-athletes from the League have previously participated in the TBT. Notably, Colgate alum Will Rayman, a three-time All-League selection and 2020 Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year, who suited up for Boeheim’s Army in 2020, a team made up mostly of former Syracuse alums. But Lieb, a 2020 Lehigh graduate and current Vanderbilt graduate assistant coach, noticed a glaring issue; there had never been a squad that represented the Patriot League.
“The idea was brought up last summer when I was watching the TBT,” Lieb said. “I envisioned myself having the opportunity to create a team, and I set that goal for myself last summer. I thought, wow, there’s never been a team from the Patriot League, and we have some unbelievable guys as far as talent goes. The opportunity to not only bring awareness to these guys and their professional careers and show the world what we can do from a basketball standpoint, but to also bring awareness to the League is something that I wanted to do.”
What started as conversations with friend and former Lehigh roommate and teammate David Roelke during the summer of 2020 intensified in the following months of quarantine, eventually leading to Lieb applying for The Tournament and enlisting Roelke to help put together the Patriot League’s first team in the TBT.
“After Jack applied, we knew we were going to have to figure out some next steps,” Roelke remembered. “Jack and I are best friends and college roommates, and those working relationships can be a little difficult if you don’t set boundaries and make some adjustments. So that was the first step in determining what would be his role and what would be my role. It was a lot of dividing up our responsibilities and coming back with a game plan.”
Lieb became the Ex-Pats Head Coach and General Manager in addition to working full-time with the men’s basketball program and pursuing his master’s degree in economics at Vanderbilt. Roelke took on the role of the team’s Assistant General Manager and Director of Operations in addition to working full time as an integrated media strategist at Performance Marketing Firm in Denver, Colo. With roles defined, the texts, phone calls and countless hours of work for Lieb and Roelke continued with one goal in mind; putting together a team of former Patriot League student-athletes capable of not only competing but winning games.
“(The TBT) is something we’ve both watched year in and year out,” Roelke said. “We’ve seen the kinds of teams and players that are in (The Tournament)…I’ve seen guys I’ve played with and against in The Tournament, and we know the kinds of teams and competition that we’ve played with and against in the Patriot League. And it was like, why couldn’t we win this thing?”
“The level of play was consistent with the level of play for guys in our League and guys who had previously played in the Patriot League,” Lieb said. “I know that there are guys that have had extreme levels of success in their professional careers, and to me, it was a no-brainer. I knew we could put together a great team that could not only get in the tournament and win games but hopefully win the whole thing.”
The relationships that Lieb and Roelke created through their careers at Lehigh helped build a talented foundation of former student-athletes who are playing at high levels all over the globe. The nine former Patriot League student-athletes on the Ex-Pats 11-member squad have a combined 15 All-Patriot League honors. The roster also boasts two former League Tournament MVPs in Lehigh’s Zahir Carrington and Bucknell’s Zach Thomas and one player of the year (Thomas). The Ex-Pats also feature two point guards who have held the distinction of being the Patriot League’s career assists leader, with Mackey McKnight and Kahron Ross, who have both more recently starred in the British Basketball League (BBL).
“We have a lot of guys who have played against each other, but they haven’t really played with each other,” Lieb said. “When I was setting this team-up, a lot of guys even expressed that to me. Like, wow, I can’t wait to play with him; I’ve never played with him before. He wasn’t on my team. Even at Lehigh, Mackey McKnight, an All-League point guard and one-time assists leader, is now teaming up with Kahron Ross, who was the next generation and one of the best Patriot League players of all time, and that’s cool. They’re going to get to play together.”
Former rivals become teammates, including Bucknell’s Thomas and former Colgate star Jordan Swopshire, who last matched up in the 2018 Patriot League Championship Game before going on to professional careers; Thomas overseas, most recently in the PLK in Poland, and Swopshire with the Sioux Falls Skyforce in the NBA G League. Thomas was also the Patriot League Tournament MVP during the 2017 season on the opposite sideline of former Lehigh rivals and new Ex-Pats teammates Ross, Pat Andree, Jordan Cohen and Kyle Leufroy.
“Zach specifically was a no-brainer for us,” Roelke said about Thomas. “He killed us in the Patriot League, he put up big numbers in the League and the NCAA Tournament. So it’s no secret to what Zach can do, that one did not take a genius GM move to pick up.”
Carrington, who has been a member of the USA 3×3 Select Team, will reunite with Gabe Knutson for the first time on the floor since helping Lehigh to the 2010 NCAA Tournament. Knutson will also get a chance to play with former teammate McKnight. The two were part of a Mountain Hawks’ squad that upset Duke in the First Round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament, so the roster’s names and storylines will be familiar to Patriot League basketball fans.
While Roelke will take charge of logistics, the TBT will give Lieb an opportunity to continue his upward trajectory in coaching.
The Deerfield, Ill. native had his career in Bethlehem, Pa. marred by injury, suffering nerve-damage in his foot following a surgery that effectively ended his playing career before his sophomore season. But Lieb remained with the Mountain Hawks. Under the guidance of Brett Reed and the Lehigh men’s basketball coaching staff, he began to see new possibilities in the game he loved.
“Toward the middle to the end of my senior year I was a captain, I was serving the team, I was doing everything I possibly could, but for someone that never played because of injury it was almost like I was a player-coach,” Lieb said. “My coaching staff knew I wanted to consider being a graduate assistant somewhere, pursue a master’s degree and get into the coaching world. It got to the point where I had opportunities to go work in the finance world, but my coaching staff kinda said, you’re foolish if you don’t go into coaching. Jokingly, they said they’d never speak to me again if I don’t go into coaching.”
Lieb took the advice of his coaches at Lehigh and landed a position as a graduate assistant on Jerry Stackhouse’s Vanderbilt coaching staff, where he will begin his second season in 2021-22. With the Ex-Pats TBT squad, Lieb will sit in the head coach’s seat for the first time with a team where the majority of players are at least a few years his senior.
But Roelke has no doubts that Lieb will be able to command the respect of the team through his hard work and preparation.
“This is where Jack is going to shine,” Roelke said. “He’s going to be a head coach one day and this is going to be his first time really leaning into that. He’s going to be up game-planning our matchup up, he’s going to have a detailed scouting report on everyone because I know how hard he works and wants this opportunity coach a team at this level.”
“(The first TBT game) will be my first official game and I’m extremely excited about it,” Lieb said. “I’m confident that we have a good group and I’m confident in myself. There’s a lot of work and a lot of prep that has gone into this to-date and a lot more to that’s going to go into it the next couple of weeks, leading up to the games, but I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for the likes of Brett Reed, Mike Mullins from the Illinois Wolves, Jason Smith at Brewster Academy, Coach Stackhouse at Vanderbilt and everyone on staff here who has helped.
“I’ve just taken a role where I can listen, watch and learn and I think that’s the best way to really understand things, especially when you’re on the low end of the totem pole early in your career like I am,” Lieb continued. “And to have an opportunity like this and to hopefully help propel my coaching career this opportunity is a no-brainer and I’m super excited about it.”
So Lieb, Roelke and the rest of the Ex-Pats team will await word on making the 2021 TBT field from Monday’s selection show. But the positive feedback has already streamed in from Patriot League alums and fans through the team’s social media feed on Twitter (@EXPATS21) and Instagram (@ex_pats_tbt).
“A lot of alums have reached out to us to let us know they love what we’re doing,” Roelke said. “We spoke to CJ McCollum, and he is a supporter of ours, and people like that know what players from the Patriot League are capable of.”
Regardless of Monday’s announcement, the Ex-Pats long-term goal remains the same; building a juggernaut similar to the four-time champion Overseas Elite squad.
“I don’t want this to be a one-time thing,” Lieb said. “I want this to be something that is carried out every single year in the TBT. We want the Ex-Pats to win it and win it multiple times. That is our vision. I want to be the next Overseas Elite, and I see ourselves having an opportunity to display our talent. Hopefully, we win, and it ends up incentivizing a lot of guys playing in the Patriot League to play for us the following year.”
ABOUT THE PATRIOT LEAGUE
The Patriot League is in its fourth decade of academic and athletic achievement, continually demonstrating that student-athletes can excel at both academics and athletics without sacrificing high standards. The Patriot League’s athletic success is achieved while its member institutions remain committed to its founding principle of admitting and graduating student-athletes that are academically representative of their class. Participation in athletics at Patriot League institutions is viewed as an important component of a well-rounded education.