CHAMPAIGN — It may seem radical in a day and age when communication is more prevalent and all-consuming than ever, but Parkland men’s basketball coach Anthony Figueroa didn’t care.
This season, Figueroa decided to take cell phones away at team meals and at curfew in the team hotel.
"You’re used to being glued to that phone," Parkland assistant coach Coleco Buie said. "Then you get to the pregame meal and you’re forced to conversate. If you do have it, you know how it is. Someone’s got the earphone in, somebody’s on Twitter, someone’s on ESPN."
This year, chatter between teammates has been particularly important. Even by junior college standards, the Cobras introduced an inordinate amount of new faces. Only three players returned from last year’s squad, which lost to Danville in the Region 24 tournament.
The junior college format makes it difficult to build culture and cohesion to begin with. Players are either in their first year playing for the team or their last. But Figueroa pushes hard to do so. That starts off the court. Aside from the cell phone rule, he signs his players up for activities and volunteer work throughout the year.
"The volunteer work, as much as it’s for giving back to the community," Figueroa said, "it’s also for the benefit of our players to be around one another, to go through that stuff so they have something other than basketball and school to talk about when they get back to the apartments."
Despite the youth, this year’s team has coalesced especially well. Parkland is 23-3 heading into next week’s Region 24 tournament after closing the regular season with a 75-57 home win against Rend Lake on Saturday afternoon and checked in at No. 8 in the latest NJCAA Division II national rankings.
The Cobras also won the Mid-West Athletic Conference championship for the fourth time in the last five seasons, all of which have come with Figueroa patrolling the Parkland sidelines.
"They’ve just clicked from Day One, and they just hang and they laugh and they joke," Buie said. "There’s no outsiders. Everybody’s in, everybody laughs and jokes, and they just have a good time.
So I think that these guys can hold themselves accountable a little bit more than some of these last teams we’ve had."
At a practice a few weeks ago, Figueroa’s demeanor belied the team’s record. Mistakes were met with visible frustration from Figueroa, who threw his hands in the air repeatedly and demonstrably corrected them.
That’s just Figueroa’s personality, though. He’s straightforward with his players. Once a player figures out how not to take that personally, integrating into the Figueroa’s system and style isn’t too challenging, at least according to sophomore point guard Ty’Ohn Trimble.
"It’s not difficult at all," he said. "It’s actually easy. He teaches us what to do and corrects us when we’re wrong, so it’s never hard. Coach Fig is tough about every little thing, and that’s what makes us better."
Through all of the changes from year to year, Figueroa and Buie’s partnership has remained the same during the last seven seasons. The two Centennial graduates took different paths to get to Parkland, and that’s part of the reason Figueroa thinks they work well together.
Figueroa was a freshman at Centennial when Buie was a senior in 1992, and both went to Chicago State to play basketball out of high school. Buie transferred to play for Steve Alford at Southwest Missouri State (now Missouri State) and played several years professionally. After leaving Chicago State, Figueroa played Division III basketball for Millikin before a short semi-pro stint in Puerto Rico.
"Once he left high school, he was consistently playing at a high level and a professional level, so there are things that he is accustomed to that we aren’t," Figueroa said of Buie. "So sometimes the expectations that he would have are hard for us, or sometimes the expectations that we would have are tough for him … But that’s the beauty of it. That’s what you want. If you have a lot of guys on your coaching staff that have the exact same path, I don’t know how you get differences of opinion. I don’t know how you get variety."
With the success they’ve built comes expectations. It made missing out on the national tournament a year ago more painful than in previous years for the coaching staff.
Figueroa and Buie want to see progression, even with an almost entirely new team once the postseason arrives. A trip back to Mary Miller Gymnasium on the campus of Danville Area Community College — the site of the NJCAA Division II national tournament — is now the standard of excellence Figueroa has established during his successful tenure at Parkland.
"It’s a different feeling when you get to the tournament. If you’ve never been there and then all of a sudden you get there, it’s like going backwards," Buie said. "You don’t want to go backwards. So we want that same feeling of winning regional championships, and when nationals come around, you want to be there."