Finke ready to step up for Illinois men’s basketball

By Joey Figueroa

As the old saying goes, when one door closes, another opens. For the Illinois men’s basketball team, roster upheaval has swung plenty of doors wide open.

By now, it’s no secret that Illinois is banged up. Following a 2014-2015 season ravaged by injuries — players combined to miss a total of 80 games — this year’s preseason has been no different.

Sophomore forward Leron Black will miss the first few weeks of the season with a torn meniscus that he may have been playing on for a while. Junior guard Kendrick Nunn had surgery on his thumb and isn’t expected back until the end of November. Prized recruit Jalen Coleman-Lands has yet to fully participate with the team because of a stress fracture in his leg.

And perhaps the most unfortunate of all, senior guard Tracy Abrams suffered his second consecutive season-ending injury with a torn achilles in July.

Illinois will likely be without three of their five projected starters to begin the season. Junior forward Malcolm Hill was the lone man representing his team at this year’s Big Ten Media Day and wasn’t too opposed to the idea of wrapping his often-injured teammates in bubble wrap.

“We need to find something, because this is getting ridiculous,” Hill said. “We’re not going to hang our heads or be sad about it, it’s the next man up. If we hang our heads, that’s when we’re defeated. It’s just a challenge we have to face, and I’m happy it happening before the season.”

“Next man up” has been the Illini’s preseason mantra, and head coach John Groce wants the next man to blow those open doors off their hinges.

“We can control what we can control,” Groce said. “It means increased opportunities and reps for other guys, and when that door opens for those guys, you want to sprint through that door and knock that door down. That’s all you can do.”

Heading into his fourth year at Illinois, Groce has overseen a drastic roster overturn and has plenty of young, intriguing pieces ready to step up.

The 6-foot-11, 270-pound gorilla in the room is graduate-transfer from Charlotte, Mike Thorne Jr., who has only impressed and is expected to step right into the starting center spot. However, it was redshirt-freshman Michael Finke whom Groce raved about when asked about Illinois’ front court depth.

“He’s stronger, he weighs more, he’s more skilled, he’s become an even better shooter, and he can really pass” Groce said. “He poses matchup problems offensively and is really working hard to become a better defender and impact the game on the backboard with his size.”

Finke played a good portion of his minutes alongside Thorne during the ILLINI ALL-IN scrimmage, and their respective games seem to complement each other well. Finke finished the scrimmage with 12 points, five boards and two assists.

Former Illini Nnana Egwu made a surprise appearance at the scrimmage to show some support for his old teammates and noticed Finke’s improvement right away.

“He’s gotten a lot better,” Egwu said. “I was here the whole year when he working his freshman year, and he really worked hard to improve his game. One thing I did notice is how much he talked. He’s talking a lot more, he’s more vocal out there defensively, and I heard that a lot.”

Finke averaged close to 20 points and nine rebounds during his senior year at Champaign Centennial High School and was named to the Class 3A All-State first team by the Associated Press. Despite redshirting all of last season, he was dubbed Illinois’ most improved player and said the year on the sidelines led to his development.

“It helped a ton,” Finke said. “It was tough at times, obviously, not being able to be out there when you go from high school playing every minute to not playing a single second. But going against Nnana every day and even just watching him and learning from him was an amazing opportunity.”

As a player who possesses an all-around, dynamic game, Finke points to his passing vision as an underrated aspect of what he can bring to the table.

Grace needs his redshirt freshman to step up and thinks Finke is up the challenge.

“He’s a completely different player than he was last year at this time.”

jf[email protected]?

@joeyfigueroa3