CHAMPAIGN — House of ‘Paign made quite the splash in its The Basketball Tournament debut last summer.
A first-time team, the mostly Illinois alumni squad upset the reigning champions and reached the quarterfinal stage. They did so with plenty of support from afar. Illini fans couldn’t watch the games in person — the entire tournament was held in a bubble in Columbus, Ohio, because of the COVID-19 pandemic — but they were certainly following along with Malcolm Hill, Andres Feliz and “adopted” Illini like Mike Daum.
The combination of House of ‘Paign’s success and the fan support created a unique opportunity this summer. The Illinois alumni team will host one of four TBT regionals from July 24-28, with games scheduled for Carver Arena in Peoria.
“I think it was a combination of our success last year, but also having a fan base that cares deeply about basketball and cares deeply about these alumni that played for Illinois and are still representing the orange and blue,” House of ‘Paign coach and former Illini guard Mike LaTulip said. “You saw it in the Big Ten tournament. Illinois travels. The orange and blue travels. Luckily for this particular summer tournament, they won’t have to travel very far at all. It’s right there in Peoria.
“Typically, when it’s your second year in the TBT, you’re not hosting a regional. It goes back to the fans and how basketball crazy this fan base is. I think they saw the support we had last year and how many people were bought into that team. From what they described to me, it was a bit of a no-brainer.”
Preliminary conversations to host the regional in Champaign and bring the Illinois alums back to State Farm Center transpired. But LaTulip said the turnaround on the decision was too quick to iron out all the logistical details to do so, but added that hosting the event in Champaign could be an option in future years.
“Peoria is still a great location and easily accessible for a lot of people coming from Champaign or Bloomington or even Chicago to pop down for a weekend at the tail end of July,” he said.
LaTulip has been planning for TBT 2021 since last year’s tournament run ended in a quarterfinal loss to Red Scare, the Dayton alumni team.
He’s kept in contact with the players from that team and other possible roster additions throughout their professional seasons. The next three months are about bringing it all together again.
Roster construction is tricky. Timing is everything for TBT participation given it takes place in between seasons for overseas leagues where most of the players are drawn.
House of ‘Paign found that out last season when Rayvonte Rice’s season in Israel was restarted and Matt Mooney — one of the TBT “grad transfers” on the roster — was called back by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“Some of those conversations have already taken place,” LaTulip said with a plan to roll out the roster in the next several weeks. “Some of those conversations we’ll get more in depth with once these guys’ seasons end in early May.”
Logistics is the piece. LaTulip has to take care of the players’ travel to Peoria, secure lodging when they get there and make sure it’s an enjoyable experience and “doesn’t feel like a hassle.”
“With that comes having to raise money,” LaTulip said. “I’d love to pay it all out of my pocket, but I’ve got a wedding to pay for and a lot of other things as well. There’s a fundraising aspect. We’re looking at some sponsorships, as well. All of that is what goes into the team. There’s a lot of boxes to check in the next few months.
“There’s a lot of work that goes into it, but this past July when it was all over, you look back pretty fondly on it and it inspires you to take it up a notch in the following year. That’s what we want to keep doing with this program, organization — whatever you want to call it — as time goes on and guys finish their time at Illinois it’s something they can look forward to playing in and playing in front of Illini fans again and being on ESPN. Those are all really cool things you treasure from your time playing at Illinois. There’s no shortage of guys that would love to keep doing it.”