Mike LaTulip On House Of Paign TBT 2020 Team: 'You just knew Illini fans would buy in and embrace this'

Matthew Stevens

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- When Mike LaTulip began to formulate the idea of putting together an Illinois alumni team for the 2020 version of The Basketball Tournament, he knew he would have just one guarantee.

“You just knew Illini fans would buy in and embrace this and get behind this basketball team,” LaTulip said. “And why wouldn’t you? The fan base has been incredible and behind this 100 percent. And I’m not surprised.”

LaTulip was approached about organizing this team after Michael Finke, who will also be on this ‘House Of Paign’ team, lost with a team of hodgepodge Illinois natives to the Carmen’s Crew team of Ohio State alumni in the first regional tournament game last year. Finke gave the TBT officials the contact information for LaTulip, who has all of the looks, mannerisms and quotes of a modern-day coach, and the former Illinois guard went to work compiling roster commitments for the 2020 Illini alumni team. LaTulip, who played his graduate senior year at Wright State following the Illini’s termination of John Groce, didn’t have to look very far in getting agreements for the Illini TBT team. LaTulip snatched up former teammates Finke, Malcolm Hill, Nnanna Egwu, Leron Black and Cameron Liss to play. Corey Bradford, who ended his Illini career, 13 years after LaTulip arrived on the Champaign-Urbana campus, agreed to play but had to back out after the virus made he and his pregnant wife nervous about the safety concerns and the idea nobody in the TBT bubble in Columbus, Ohio is allowed to leave once they check in.

LaTulip has also acquired the services of highly-skilled ringers as DePaul’s Billy Garrett, three-time Summit League Player of the Year selection Mike Daum of South Dakota State and Central Connecticut State point guard Kyle Vinales. Vinales was one of the highest scorers in Division I college basketball during 2011-15 and Daum left SDSU as the Summit League’s all-time leading scorer becoming just the tenth player in NCAA Division I history to score 3,000 points.

And then there’s recent Illinois graduate Andres Feliz. Feliz, who was looking forward to a postseason run this past March, has approached playing on this ‘House Of Paign’ team in this tournament as his ability to scratch a postseason itch.

“I wanted to play one more time with Illinois’ jersey on the front of my chest,” said Feliz. “Seeing as how we went down that way in March, unfortunately we couldn’t go to March Madness. I’m super excited to be on this team and to be with some of the guys that already have played with Illinois in the past and some of the guys who came from the outside.”

Illinois Fighting Illini guard Andres Feliz (10) celebrates with fans after a game against the Iowa Hawkeyes at State Farm Center.Patrick Gorski/USA TODAY Sports

For the first time since 2013, Illinois fans were gearing up in March to watch their favorite team participate in the NCAA tournament, which had been a mainstay tradition for those who follow Illini basketball, from 1993-2007 where Illinois only missed March Madness twice in that 14-year period.

They’ll have a chance to win a version of Illini basketball as ‘House of Paign’ open first round play in the TBT 2020 on July 4 at 7 p.m. against ‘War Tampa’, a team primarily of Auburn alums, for the right to face defending champion Carmen’s Crew.

With the coronavirus putting an abrupt end to not only the Illini’s 2019-20 season that all but guaranteed the program’s return to the dance but also the beginning of Major League Baseball in the summer, fans of the orange blue are itching to have team sports they can root for during this worldwide pandemic.

“I think being able for folks on the fourth of July to be able to watch some Illini basketball on primetime on ESPN can’t possibly get much better than that,” LaTulip said.