Smile Politely

Unanimity of purpose

Two weeks ago, at the end of Media Day’s cheery Word Association session with the Illini men, I asked each of them “what surprises you about this team so far?”

They all answered the same way.

There are two ways to interpret this fact. The worldly, skeptical reporter smells brainwashing, coachspeak, the programming of young minds. But I can also see how each Illini meant what he said, even if it was exactly what a teammate said.

Yesterday, I asked Derrick Burson to weigh in on these divergent viewpoints. He’s the guy who trains the team to interact with the media, and he has a journalism degree.

Derrick said, essentially, that the team really believes in the mantras they’re taught. Yes, on a daily basis John Groce instills phrases & concepts. Yes, he (Derrick) instills the lads with principles & strategies for handling the media.

But Derrick pointed out that dealing with the media is only a small fraction of the rigorous, daily ritual of playing Division I basketball. To the two of us, media relations are important. To the players, it’s an afterthought.

So whether the idea was instilled in them or not, it may be fair to say that the Illini team bought in to the notion of their own cohesiveness. While they’re willing to lampoon each other, and compete violently & aggressively in practice; these guys are very close friends.


As I lament weekly, sometimes daily, the Illini media pool is not allowed to watch John Groce’s basketball practices. Groce says he wants to maintain a teaching environment. Sometimes he implicitly suggests that media coverage would invite ridicule of individuals and methods.

But the practices are not closed to everyone. The Illini coaching staff regularly welcomes coaches and teams from around the area. Blackhawk East’s Chance Jones and Pup Dennison were on hand Wednesday, along with the entire Mount Vernon Summersville boys team (grades 6 through 8).

They filed in shortly before the full practice got underway, while Illini assistant coach Jamall Walker drilled Aaron Cosby and Ahmad Starks. Coach Groce greeted all the players and coaches, pointing them to seats in A Section. You can see it below — only somewhat distracted by exuberant dad Paris Parham saying we all missed a great show on Sunday, when #2 son Kai starred as Donkey in the Champaign Park District Youth (grades 4 through 8) Theatre’s production of SHREK: The Musical.

Last Wednesday’s workout was observed by the Parkland’s men’s team, which regularly attends Illini practices. The newish head coach at Parkland is Anthony Figueroa, a 1995 Centennial grad. He’s assisted by another star of 90’s Champaign high school basketball, Coleco Buie.

Walker remembers Buie from their playing days. Walker played at Saint Louis University, and Buie at (Southwest) Missouri State. Figueroa is better acquainted with assistant Dustin Ford.

I have known Dustin for about five-six years. While I was (an assistant coach) at Lackawanna he recruited one of our post players to Western Carolina. We kept in touch as we moved around, he is a great guy, comes from a good basketball family.

The Cobras attendance at Illini practices precedes the Ford/Figueroa relationship. Derrick Burson says Parkland coaches have been bringing their teams to watch Illini workouts for years. Nor is Figueroa new to the world of Illini basketball administration.

I started attending IL practices while Coach Weber was here. I worked Illinois Summer camps for almost 10 years so I always got to know the different coaching staffs and they have all been open to letting other coaches watch practices/workouts.

Figueroa gave a frank assessment of the value he gets from taking his team to see the Illini at work.

Practice was good. Gives our guys a chance to see what the highest level of ball looks like, how the practice runs, how the coaches scream and yell (that way I look like a pussy cat!!) how hard to have to play. I’ve gotten some drills from Coach Groce and his staff and we use them daily so the guys also got to see another team run the same drills.

I’d like to see those drills. Perhaps the Smile Politely community should form a Middle-Aged Hipsters League, for all us ex-playground legends. Maybe then, John Groce would let us come over and watch.


In his preview of tonight’s exhibition versus McKendree University, Groce made it clear that Mike LaTulip is in the rotation.

LaTulip himself was not sure whether he’d see more time at point or shooting guard. But he’ll be playing, and not just clean-up minutes.

Some people remain skeptical of LaTulip, for the same reasons people are always skeptical of average-height white guys who walk-on. Even after his (arguably “breakout”) performance at last week’s Orange & Blue Scrimmage, doubt persists about LaTulip’s place on the team.

Throughout, there’s one person who’s never wavered in his belief about Mike LaTulip. That’s Mike LaTulip. 

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