Keller leads Illini supporting cast

Let’s just say No. 23 on the Illini doesn’t quite resemble Michael Jordan. Just take a closer look at the past few months.

His best friend left the men’s basketball team. He ensured he wasn’t voted team captain as the squad’s lone contributing senior. And he has yet to crack the starting lineup as his collegiate career is about to come to a close.

But Dominique Keller does have one thing in common with Jordan: He knows his role, and he plays it well. The senior forward provides a spark of energy off the bench for head coach Bruce Weber when his starters don’t show up.

On a team full of proven juniors and promising freshmen, though, Keller is sometimes left in the dust.

“I’ve got a sense of urgency because I know at the end of the day, at the end of the season, these guys have something to look forward to,” Keller said. “It’s the last go-around for me, and there is no tomorrow for me basically. I’ve got to give it my all, and I definitely think I play a little extra harder than everyone else because I know at the end of the day, this is my last shot.”

The 6-foot-7 forward is averaging 5.6 points and 13.1 minutes for the Illini this season, and he led the squad with a career-high 22 points against Gonzaga at the United Center on Jan. 2. However, his numbers don’t come close to illustrating the full picture.

“He does a lot of talking on the bench,” freshman guard D.J. Richardson said of Keller. “He talks to everybody and says a couple of words to them. That’s strong for a senior that’s not getting enough minutes as he’s capable of getting.”

But none of this was in Keller’s plans when he transferred to Illinois in 2008 from Lee College in Baytown, Texas.

“I’m disappointed, but at the same time I don’t let it affect my game at all,” Keller said of not being in the starting lineup. “Everybody wants to start. This being my last year and all underclassmen starting, I’m not going to make it a big deal or anything. I’m just going to do what Coach wants me to do and play my role.”

Weber said Keller used to always try to make a play as soon as he got out on the court, but now he’s finally embracing his role and learning he can make things happen without having to get to the basket.

Even if that means words without actions.

Earlier this season, Weber gave Keller more minutes when junior forward Mike Davis struggled and was taken out of the starting lineup. Keller used that opportunity in a different way, fulfilling his vocal role during the Indiana game on Jan. 30.

“Dominique wants minutes, but Dominique said, ‘Hey Coach, Mike Davis is ready. We need him.’ That’s pretty good for Dominique to do that because he always wants to play,” Weber said after defeating Indiana.

But the greatest bump in the road for Keller this season may have been when Alex Legion — his best friend on the team — transferred to Florida International in December.

“It was disappointing,” Keller said of when Legion left. “I didn’t speak of it a lot. I didn’t address the media or anything, but it kind of hurt me.

“He was my best friend on the team,” Keller added. “I probably hung out with him more than anybody. We hung together like 23 out of 24 hours of the day. When he left, it kind of hurt me. But I talk to him all of the time, and I’m over it. He made the decision that’s best for him, and I’m still here, and I’ve got to make decisions that are best for me.”

Keller still talks to Legion almost every day, and he said his closest friend on the team now is junior Jeff Jordan. Keller also regularly gives his advice to freshmen Richardson and Joseph Bertrand.

By the time January rolled around and the team decided to vote on new captains, Keller was content with his place.

He said he would rather have the players who are out on the court the most be the team’s leaders, no matter how old they are. He shared this with his teammates when they held a players-only meeting on Jan. 24, following the loss at Northwestern.

“When we started the meeting, I told the guys I would appreciate it if they didn’t vote for me,” Keller said. “A lot of the guys wanted me to do it because I was the senior and this is my last year. I knew a lot of the guys were going to put my name on the paper. The first part of the meeting I said, ‘I know I’m a senior, but I feel like it’s better if somebody else leads this team. I can lead on the bench and I can cheer and make energy plays, but at the end of the day it’s going to have to be Demetri (McCamey) and Bill (Cole).’”

McCamey and Cole may lead the team on the court, but Keller ensures all of the Illini remain on the edge of their seats when they’re on the bench.

“I’ve definitely always got a little motivation,” Keller said. “There’s (two) seniors on the team, and I’m really only the one who gives significant minutes. It means a lot. So, I’ve got a chance to go out with a bang.”