CHAMPAIGN — The nine team members of House of ‘Paign, plus coaches Mike LaTulip and Cameron Liss, will take their first at home COVID-19 test today.
They’ll test themselves again on Thursday.
The team will then make their own individual travel plans to Columbus, Ohio. Traveling separately is another precaution. One team member perhaps contracting the novel coronavirus on the road wouldn’t then infect anybody else.
It’s all necessary prep for the mostly Illinois alumni team’s Monday arrival in Columbus for The Basketball Tournament. LaTulip used the team’s frequent Zoom calls to mostly talk on-court strategy, but also as an opportunity to drop a reminder a couple weeks ago about each individual taking necessary health and safety precautions.
“These are adults,” LaTulip said. “They’re going to make decisions. It’s their life. What I’ve always said on the Zoom call we’ve had is, ‘Live your life guys, but understand for these next two weeks, just shut it down. When I say shut it down, no bars, no restaurants, no open runs.
“Anything you can do to limit exposure gives us the best chance to win this thing and ensure when we get to Columbus we’re going to have our full team and go about business as usual.’”
Business as usual, of course, is different during a pandemic. The Basketball Tournament cut its field from 64 teams to 24. House of ‘Paign drew the No. 16 seed and will face War Tampa — some Auburn grads mixed with Florida natives — in the opening round on July 4.
While House of ‘Paign is in the tournament field, staying in it will require negative COVID-19 tests. Both at home and once the team arrives in Ohio.
Players and coaches alike will be tested when they arrive in Columbus and placed in a five-day quarantine with The Basketball Tournament providing lodging and food and setting up practice times for the individual teams. Coming out of the quarantine will necessitate another test. Teams that make the quarterfinals will almost assuredly be tested again.
“We’re being very strict with the testing,” said Jake Pavorsky, the director of player personnel and public relations for The Basketball Tournament. “Any player who tests positive for COVID-19 will be removed from the team. Any player who tests positive while in that quarantine bubble and interacting with their teammates will result in removing the entire team. Players will be quarantined basically to the team hotel and playing arena and outside of that, we’re really not allowing for too much movement.
“Granted, these are very strict restrictions, but they’re what we feel is necessary to be able to put on this tournament safely. Given the timing of it — the fact that we’re only playing it over 10 days — we feel that our players are understanding of the situation and willing to be compliant to give themselves an opportunity to win seven figures.”
LaTulip said the House of ‘Paign squad falls into that category. They haven’t been able to get together in person, but regular strategy sessions on Zoom have proven beneficial. Flexibility has also been key when it comes to dealing with the changing nature of The Basketball Tournament, which will happen in a compacted 10-day period in early July instead of at the end of the month.
“When we used to play for (former Illinois coach John Groce), he talked about being unconditional,” LaTulip said. “Day by day, there’s little tweaks to protocol where we need guys to pick it up on the fly and be adaptable. They know exactly how to go about it. They know exactly what’s required of them — especially in these times.
“It’s unprecedented, so they’ve really kept an open mind throughout the process. In order for us to be the last team standing in this, you have to do the little things. In the midst of a pandemic, those little things are even more important.”
LaTulip has had to be able to adapt himself as the House of ‘Paign general manager. Like when Centennial and Illinois grad Rayvonte Rice got called back in May to finish his season in Israel, making him unavailable for The Basketball Tournament. Or when former Illini Cory Bradford withdrew from the tournament Monday to be with his wife at home in Orlando, Fla., during the final stage of her pregnancy.
LaTulip initially rounded out the House of ‘Paign roster with three “grad transfer” additions. The Arlington Heights native and former Illinois guard knew Matt Mooney from growing up in the Chicago suburbs. By finishing his college career at Wright State playing for Scott Nagy, LaTulip also knew former South Dakota State standout Mike Daum. The third addition, Kyle Vinales, played with former Illini Michael Finke in Estonia this past season.
A fourth “grad transfer” was necessitated when Bradford withdrew. LaTulip doesn’t know former Morgan Park and DePaul guard Billy Garrett personally, but heard nothing but good things about the talented guard. Garrett was also willing to jump into all of the pre-tournament preparation — COVID-19 testing included — at the last minute.
Melding those four players with the group of Illinois grads for House of ‘Paign that also includes Finke, Malcolm Hill, Leron Black, Nnanna Egwu and Andres Feliz took some work. Particularly since none of that work has actually happened on a basketball court yet.
“We’ve had numerous Zoom calls running through offensive and defensive schemes,” LaTulip said. “We’ll have individual calls with each guy before we get to Columbus to make sure everybody is aware of their role. The preparation even before getting to Columbus is what I think is going to help us when we get there and as we go through the tournament.
“I’ve really been blown away by the buy-in a lot of the guys have had and how attentive they are. It’s a lot between the testing and digesting all the game plan stuff. They’ve stayed on top of it. We wanted to do that by design and made sure we got guys that would be adaptable, so they’ve been great.”