Mike LaTulip’s Coaching & GM Skills On Notice In House Of Paign TBT Opener

Matthew Stevens

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- The coaching and general manager role for organizing a basketball team from scratch is what Mike LaTulip was made to do.

LaTulip, a former walk-on player at Illinois and graduate transfer player at Wright State, essentially took his day job and turned the skills needed as an account recruiting manager in Austin, Texas and translated it into the University of Illinois having its first alumni team in The Basketball Tournament.

Since Oct. 2019, LaTulip has been an account recruiting manager in Texas for a recruiting firm that partners exclusively with advanced tech companies and startup companies to help build them into more efficient power companies with new people. Loosely translated, LaTulip is part of a team that finds people to succeed. When former Illinois player Michael Finke was approached by officials at The Basketball Tournament on who would be an effective recruiter and coach for the Illini’s first entrant in the TBT, LaTulip was his first recommendation.

“Obviously when we put together the team, we had a template and a criteria in place,” LaTulip said. “We obviously thought if we did that, we’d have guys who like being around each other and when they took the court, they had fun playing basketball. When you have fun playing basketball, this can be the result."

In both his day job and his project to possibly win a $1 million cash prize pool, LaTulip understands immediately that putting the best talent together in a room isn’t always the best strategy. LaTulip knew this House Of Paign team for the TBT 2020 would have to be an egoless, chemistry-laden squad of players that enjoyed the experience.

“What Mike has done first and foremost is brought in players that know the game of basketball,” said House Of Paign center Nnanna Egwu, who played with LaTulip at Illinois from 2014-15. “We all have really good basketball I.Q.’s so whether it is a Zoom meeting or the short time now where we’ve been able to get live practice in, it has always been helpful. We needed to get a picture in our head and once we got that, we’re all smart enough to gauge how it’ll flow on the court.”

All reviews coming from the House Of Paign’s dominating wire-to-wire 76-53 win over War Tampa in the first round game Saturday night are applauding how connected and organized the group of eight players looked at all times despite none of them having had any game action since March.

“We look like a real team, like we've been practicing for six months, and we've been here for six days,” House Of Paign guard Andres Feliz said after the win Saturday night. “I love it, man. I love being here. I'm more than happy just to be a part of this team."

ESPN college basketball analyst Dan Dakich, who was an assistant coach to Bob Knight at Indiana from 1985–97 and then a college basketball head coach from 1997-2007 at Bowling Green, came away more than impressed with the coaching job coming from the House Of Paign sidelines.

“(LaTulip) has done a great job working with that House Of Paign team far, far, far before this team ever got here for this tournament,” Dakich said on Twitter Sunday afternoon.

Dakich noticed and pointing out during the ESPN broadcast Saturday night that LaTulip was able to get Mike Daum, a key non-Illinois player pickup for this House Of Paign team, open in several different positions on the floor with unique offensive action. Daum would finish Saturday evening leading all scorers with a double-double effort of with 21 points and 10 rebounds.

“In fact, I’d argue that Mike LaTulip’s team runs more offense than 90 percent of the millionaires you see coaching in college basketball,” Dakich said.

This cohesion wasn’t by accident. LaTulip began months ago putting together a process of recruiting players, organizing a practice schedule and getting committed talent to meet and get a good feel for each other.

“I knew like two of the guys legit before I came here to Columbus,” Daum said. “Seeing that first practice where I got to meet everybody for the first time, you could just tell we had a great group of guys willing to buy in to whatever it takes to win. There’s no egos on our team. There’s not one person who’s mad at anybody else for taking a shot. We’re all super encouraging of each other, and I think that’s something special and something you need to win in this tournament.”

And then the world was besieged by the worst virus in nearly 100 years and suddenly the coronavirus had everything put on hold and everybody under a stay-at-home order for public safety purposes.

Therefore, everything had to be virtual. LaTulip immediately began to design teaching and training aides to be used on Zoom video conferencing. The 26-year-old began having constant team meetings on Zoom explaining sets and concepts he wanted to implement on both ends of the floor. The good news for LaTulip was for all but one player, Feliz, he was dealing with current professional basketball players competing all over the world. Feliz was just coming off playing for an Illini team that was all but guaranteed an NCAA tournament berth if not for the cancellation of all play in mid-March. Feliz dropped in 20 points and seven rebounds in 33 minutes.

“Andres Feliz may have just finished his college career but that dude is a pro,” LaTulip said.

If the coronavirus wasn’t enough of a roadblock, LaTulip was forced to find another player after the epidemic made former Illini sharpshooter Corey Bradford nervous about the tournament regulations of being forced to stay in the bubble. Bradford and his wife are expecting their first child shortly and his obvious family obligations superseded any tournament COVID-19 rules. After just over 24 hours, LaTulip got a commitment from Billy Garrett, a former DePaul star with NBA experience. That kind of free agent pickup is only done by a professional recruiter, which is exactly who the general manager and head coach of House Of Paign has in their operation.

On Wednesday afternoon, House Of Paign will have to find a similar chemistry and comfort level again as they attempt to topple the tournament’s defending champion and host Carmen’s Crew as Jared Sullinger brings back an impressive Ohio State alumni team that also includes former Illinois star guard Demetri McCamey.

“It all feels good but we didn’t come here just to win one game,” LaTulip said.