Mike LaTulip’s confidence will likely take a beating over the next few years at Illinois.
It’s part of the territory of being a walk-on player. You practice as much as the scholarship athletes, and you may even work harder than some of them, but you’re still still responsible for paying your own way to school, and the only time you’ll probably see the floor is in the burning embers of a lopsided game.
LaTulip, a 6-foot combo guard at Prospect, isn’t naïve to this. He did his homework, and Illinois coach Bruce Weber laid out to him what was guaranteed to him – basically nothing outside of a non-scholarship roster spot.
It takes a unique psyche to be a walk-on player, and LaTulip may posses it. Despite the odds and the uphill battle ahead of him, LaTulip has never second-guessed whether he’s wanted that challenge. While his confidence may take a hit over the next couple years, he’s sure he’s got plenty where it came from, and he believes eventually he’ll earn an opportunity to play a significant role for Illinois.
“I never had something like that in my life,” LaTulip said of the challenge of being a walk-on player. “Playing here [at Prospect,] I’ve always been like the guy. I had a number of mid-major looks. I didn’t want to go somewhere and think, ‘What if? What if I could have done this at the highest level?’ That’s what really attracted me to Illinois.”
LaTulip’s attitude toward playing at Illinois is nothing new to Prospect coach John Camardella. Since LaTulip was put on varsity as a sophomore, Camardella has witnessed a player who is willing to do whatever is necessary to succeed.
“When we brought him up as a sophomore, people are like he’s too small, he can’t play,” Camardella said. “The MSL isn’t exactly an offensive conference. You got your Schaumburg’s where they want to beat you and want to win 38-36. He weighed 130 pounds, and he was averaging 15 points with defenses keying on him.”
Little has changed since then. While LaTulip has added 35 pounds, defenses are still focusing on him, and he’s still making them pay. He’s averaging 20 points and four assists this season.
LaTulip’s numbers have piled up over the years, and he is now on the verge of becoming Prospect’s all-time leading scorer. He’s seven points shy of breaking of Craig Anderson’s record of 1,282 points, which was set in 2002. He’ll have a chance to get the record against Elk Grove on Friday.
“The record is what is,” LaTulip said. “If and when it happens, sure, it’d be humbling to represent the program like this. Most importantly, it’s a testament to my teammates and coaching staff of putting a trust in me to score the basketball. I appreciate that. I think it’s something I do pretty well.”
LaTulip is best known for his scoring. He’s become somewhat of local legend for his ability to fill up a net. He especially opened some eyes when he dropped 51 points in the Full Package Fall Exposure League last year. In a recent win over Hersey, he set a new career-high in a high school game with 38 points, including eight 3-pointers.
LaTulip’s outside shooting could be where he makes his mark at Illinois. The Illini have struggled from 3-point range this season, ranking 278th in the country with a .313 percentage.
“He's arguably the best shooter in the state’s Class of 2012 and, at the high school level, can be an absolute relentless scorer,” said Chicago-area recruiting analyst Joe Henricksen, who publishes the City/Suburban Hoops Report. “He possesses that quick release and range on his jumper. He's a volume shooter who still maintains efficiency and is so effective as a result of taking what a defense gives him.
“The overlooked part of his game is the supreme confidence he plays with and the edge he brings to the floor. He makes you a believer. Although the lack of size and the fact he's not a natural point guard aren't ideal for the Big Ten, he's a terrific walk-on for Illinois.”
LaTulip has been a constant follower of the Big Ten this season, and he thought he could have the shooting impact of someone like Jordan Hulls at Indiana or Ben Brust at Wisconsin down the line.
“The one thing coach Weber told me right of the bat is nothing’s promised, but at the same time they know I can shoot,” LaTulip said. “That at times has been a deficiency for them. I think I’m a specialist coming in the offense, kind of work around the arc and feed off the game.”
As much as LaTulip’s scoring has been touted, his game is more than just that. He can also read defenses and get the ball to his teammates. His role is part point guard and part scoring guard at Prospect.
Against Wheeling in a recent game, his shot was off and the defense was paying him extra attention. Instead of forcing the issue, he began locating his teammates for open buckets. He added a little flare to a couple passes with them coming in the no-look variety, and he finished with a season-high nine assists.
“His floor game is incredible,” Camardella said. “I think that’s the biggest thing he does. He’s able to recognize the defense immediately. It’s something that makes us as coaches just smile because you can’t really teach that. You can talk that, but it’s his vision that makes it happen.”
At Illinois, LaTulip’s role likely won’t be a point guard. He also won’t have defenses focusing on him. But whether he’s got everyone’s attention at Prospect or possibly no one’s at Illinois, he’s embraces each obstacle in its own way.
“Every game I go into, it’s like you can tell people are like that’s the guy going to Illinois and stuff like that,” LaTulip said. “I try to relish that and try to relish that role staying focused every game because I know whoever is guard me wants to stop me.
“I may not be a point guard at Illinois. I don’t know what’s in store. I know I’m at the bottom at the totem pole, and I can’t wait to work my way up.”