Sam McLaurin has chance to make NCAA tourney dream a reality

Sam McLaurin starts his days with breakfast and the basketball gym. The earlier, the better.

On a morning in early February, McLaurin had some company in the gym. Mike LaTulip, four years younger and nearly a foot shorter than the fifth-year senior McLaurin, was shooting 3-pointers from the mechanized gun that launches basketballs to players in rhythm for a jump shot. The preferred walk-on earned his spot on the Illinois roster via the 3-pointer and is practicing constantly from that range.

Up until that point, McLaurin had never made a 3-point field goal in college and had attempted only two in his career, both during his freshman year at Coastal Carolina. It didn’t matter. He saw no reason why LaTulip would be a better shooter than him.

“Mike, you want to shoot?” McLaurin called out. “Let’s shoot some 3s.”

LaTulip acquiesced and the two of them began taking turns on the gun. LaTulip first with his efficient, quick trigger and then McLaurin with his long, loping release, complete with a hitch that makes an onlooker wince. The competition escalated as the shot attempts reached the hundreds, but McLaurin held his own with the sharpshooter, estimating that they combined equally to hit 70 percent on 400 3-pointers attempted.

“We were going back and forth,” LaTulip said. “Then he started going back to, like, NBA-range and started hitting all sorts of 3s.”

McLaurin’s shooting range might come as a surprise to some, but his joy for proving himself worthy against an opponent perceived as superior, and surprising people along the way, resembles the McLaurin that is often seen bullishly battling for rebounds. After all, measuring out at 6-foot-8 and 220 pounds puts him on the smaller side of Big Ten frontcourt players. He never sees it that way.

“I just always think I’m the best at everything I do,” McLaurin said. “He’s not better than me. Even though they may say he is, I just don’t think he is. So I’m going to make him work for everything he’s got. I just try to outwork the next man, and whenever I’m able to do that, it’s usually good for our team.”

When McLaurin gets in the vicinity of a missed shot, an opponent is put on notice immediately that tonight he’ll have to go through hell to beat McLaurin for that ball. Sometimes this manifests itself in the box score — McLaurin has 100 rebounds on the year, 67 of the offensive variety — but most instances his head coach is marveling at the little things in the film room after the game.

“He makes plays on film and I say, ‘Did he really do that?’” first-year head coach John Groce said. “He makes winning plays, and that you cannot underestimate.”

McLaurin is the first recruit of the Groce era at Illinois, and he announced his transfer in a peculiar fashion, tweeting “F*** it, I’m going to Illinois.” The tweet was deleted swiftly but was not ominous of any future trouble. McLaurin was named a captain before the season, and his exuberance for Illinois only comes as the result of living out a dream to play high-major college basketball.

And with that dream comes an expectation: to make the NCAA Tournament. McLaurin played on good teams at Coastal Carolina, but good teams at Coastal Carolina meant National Invitation Tournament berths and not a whiff of the Big Dance. This season at Illinois is his last chance.

In the days following McLaurin’s 3-point summit with LaTulip, Illinois was battling at Minnesota for a defining win. The team had upset No. 1 Indiana a mere three days earlier, but a win against the Golden Gophers would prove the Illini’s validity as a tournament-caliber team following a rough start to conference play.

Minnesota secured a 37-34 lead on a 7-0 run to begin the second half. Illinois was desperate for a basket, and McLaurin received a pass behind the 3-point line at the top of the key. His defender didn’t fathom that McLaurin would ever take the shot and stood 10 feet away in the lane. Without hesitation, McLaurin let it fly.

Swoosh. The first 3-pointer of his college career. LaTulip watched from the bench, unsurprised. He’d seen McLaurin shoot 70 percent from that spot earlier that week.

“Rotation was good. Trajectory was good,” LaTulip noted. “When you’re 1-for-1 from 3 for the season, you feel pretty good.”

So good that McLaurin launched another one on a crucial possession with under two minutes left. This time the ball clanked off the iron, but McLaurin was undeterred. He later blocked a 3-point shot to seal the win, changing the fortunes of team’s season and squarely pointing it toward the tournament. A couple games in the Big Dance to end McLaurin’s career isn’t how he always envisioned it, but he’s outworked enough people now to make it a reality.

“What a way to go out,” McLaurin said.

Thomas can be reached at bruch2@ and @ThomasBruch.

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