PEORIA — Trent Frazier tweeted out earlier this week he’d be in Peoria on Saturday afternoon to watch House of ‘Paign in The Basketball Tournament. What Frazier failed to mention was he was bringing the rest of the Illinois men’s basketball team with him.
Frazier and Co. arrived at the Civic Center in Peoria right as Saturday’s first-round game was starting. The Illinois super-senior guard led the way to the team’s seats under the basket closest to the House of ‘Paign bench. Behind him were Da’Monte Williams, Alfonso Plummer, Jacob Grandison, Luke Goode, R.J. Melendez, Brandin Podziemski and Zach Griffith.
And Kofi Cockburn bringing up the rear.
The team’s arrival created one of the biggest crowd pops of the afternoon. Some fans even gave them a standing ovation.
House of ‘Paign coach and general manager Mike LaTulip appreciated their presence.
“I glanced up at the scoreboard to check the foul situation, and you see Kofi and Trent up there, and the fan base showing love,” LaTulip said. “That’s what it’s all about. It was good to see them. It was good to see the fans.
“That’s what’s tough. You obviously want buy in and support, but it’s a two-way street. That’s the downside of it like, ‘Cool, we’re showing up to the game, but give us a win.’ That’s the tough part. That’s life. That’s how it goes. We’ll all learn from it and be better with it.”
The Civic Center crowd turned out overwhelmingly in support of House of ‘Paign. Former Illinois guard Rayvonte Rice certainly felt the love in what ultimately turned out to be a 64-58 loss to Jackson (Tenn.) Underdawgs.
“It means everything,” Rice said. “We had the biggest advantage here with all the orange in the crowd. It felt like being back in college. We appreciate them. They could have been doing 1,000 other things, but we appreciate them taking time out of their busy life to come support us.”
★ ★ ★
Illinois coach Brad Underwood couldn’t make it to Saturday’s game — he and his staff were on the road recruiting during the final evaluation period of July — but recorded a video that played during the broadcast. Underwood won’t be able to see House of ‘Paign play given Saturday’s loss, but he’s a TBT fan.
“That’s so cool to me to see all these guys who played here and are from this area — their passion and excitement level,” Underwood said. “This is home. That’s one of the things that really concerns me about where we’re going in the future (with constant roster turnover) is this is home to so many great players. People who have been a part of a program know what that means.”
Jackson understood the crowd dynamics. Coach Dexter Williams said there were a few fans from west Tennessee in the arena, but they were vastly outnumbered. Underdawgs guard Terrandus Smith — one of two players on his team with 10 points — didn’t mind.
“I love it,” he said. “I’m not going to lie. I kind of did interact with them a little bit. That’s just me being me — nothing disrespectful. I like going up against crowds like that. It keeps me motivated. I feel like I play my best games against crowds like that. I hope the next team has the same amount of energy in the crowd.
“As far as we can tell, it’s really just us on the bench. We’ve got to motivate each other to keep going and stay in the game. It felt good to have a team behind your back.”
Jackson delivered a 15-over-2 upset with its win against House of ‘Paign. The Underdawgs, though, aren’t looking to change their team name any time soon.
“I don’t care if you think we’re the best team,” Smith said. “I’m forever going to list myself as an underdog. The moment you stop listing yourself as an underdog it might come back to bite you.”
Williams said he understood his team wasn’t viewed as a “big target” by other teams in the tournament. Fine by him.
“We want to stay right where we are,” he said. “We want to stay the underdog.”
★ ★ ★
House of ‘Paign entered Saturday’s game with its five starters and three players available off the bench.
The roster was pared away in the lead-up to the tournament, with Jaylon Tate signing a new professional contract and Leron Black landing a graduate assistant gig at Dayton. That doesn’t even include Malcolm Hill, who couldn’t run it back after playing a key role in 2020, because he landed a spot in the NBA Summer League with the New Orleans Pelicans.
Former Illinois guard Andres Feliz also couldn’t make it to Peoria. More precisely, a visa issue meant he couldn’t even get into the United States.
“We were in about a month-and-a-half or two-month process of actively working to get him in the country,” LaTulip said. “This was a long process. We knew it was going to come down to the buzzer. It’s really, really hard to get people in the country right now — especially when they have an ongoing marital visa. We did everything we could.
“Andres Feliz adds a lot to any team. You can look at circumstances (Saturday). He’s a dog, but we have dogs in this locker room. We have that. No need to sit up here and say, ‘But if we had this guy, the result is different.’ You’ve got to play either way.”
★ ★ ★
House of ‘Paign might have had an earlier-than-expected TBT exit, but Rice enjoyed his first summer playing in the tournament. The three-day training camp the team held in Washington leading up to Saturday’s game was his favorite part given he got a chance to reconnect with other former Illini.
“I’m looking to compete every year until I stop playing,” Rice said. “Why not? It’s a chance to win some money, get ready for next season and reconnect with these guys. It’s a paid vacation, really.”
Former Illinois guard Demetri McCamey isn’t a TBT newcomer, but this year was his first with House of ‘Paign after playing on a Kansas State alumni team with his cousin Jacob Pullen and then the Ohio State alumni team given his relationship with Evan Turner.
McCamey, who has played professionally since leaving Illinois in 2011, isn’t necessarily done with basketball, either. He took this past season off, but is looking at several options for 2021-22.
“Me and my wife sat down and talked about it with COVID and everything it was best to be with family and stay at home,” McCamey said about his year off. “I think maybe one or two more years. I’m talking to my agent now to see what’s the best. As well as seeing the coaching opportunities, because I’m looking and there’s a lot of availabilities open for player development and assistant coaching jobs, as well.”
McCamey is interested in the latter regardless of when his playing career ends. And the former Illini point guard is high on the hires Underwood made to fill out his coaching staff, including Chester Frazier and Tim Anderson.
“Every time I see my friends, old teammates get jobs to help better their families and get jobs to help teach younger kids is tremendous,” McCamey said of Frazier’s hire. “I haven’t worked with (Anderson) personally, but I’ve been in gyms and seen him work out kids. He’s a great guy — a hard worker — and I think he’s going to be a great addition to the Illini program, especially to relate to the younger kids and help them develop their game.
“I think he’s one of the best at it. I think that’s a great pickup, and, to be honest, about time. He’s deserved a shot to be successful.”