Champaign native Finke at home with Illinois


By Sean Neumann

Michael Finke doesn’t have to travel far to get to the State Farm Center.

His home in Champaign is only about four miles from Illinois basketball’s home court.

The Champaign native is one of two incoming freshman joining the Illini in 2014-15, looking to find playing time behind more established bigs, such as Nnanna Egwu and Maverick Morgan.

Finke, a 6-foot-10 forward from Champaign’s Centennial High School, said there was an initial shock when he first practiced with the Illini earlier this year — a team he grew up idolizing during the Dee Brown and Deron Williams years.

But Finke’s all-time favorite Illini athlete isn’t someone he saw play at Illinois, just someone he’s heard stories about.

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Finke’s father, Jeff, played basketball at Illinois in 1987 before joining the football team, where he earned four varsity letters as a tight end. 

Michael told his father he was committing to his alma mater in late 2012.

“He was thrilled,” the younger Finke said. “The fact that I ended up here where he went to school, I’m sure it meant a lot to him.”

The benefits of playing college ball in his hometown allows him to still see his family once every week — a luxury most college students don’t have.

“My mom still does my laundry, so that’s good for me,” Finke laughed. “It’s awesome, but it feels like I’m so far away too.”

The competition’s skill level will surely be far better than what Finke was used to playing against in high school, where he averaged 19.6 points and 9.3 rebounds in his senior season, earning first-team all-state honors.

While Finke has had an easy transition to college life, junior guard Aaron Cosby said the freshman will still have to adjust on the court.

“Practice is a lot more intense,” said Cosby, who transferred to Illinois from Seton Hall last season. “Having to bring it every day is going to be an adjustment.”

Finke said that there have been no conversations with the Illini coaching staff about redshirting yet, and he’s looking to earn playing time off the bench this season.

Head coach John Groce said Finke and sophomore Austin Colbert will be relied on to provide backup for Egwu when he needs a breather.

“He’s not going to be able to play 40 minutes,” Groce said. “How productive are we defensively and offensively when he’s out of the game? I think that’s a big key to our being consistent.”

Groce said the freshman has adjusted faster than he expected and wants to be “open-minded” when figuring him into Illinois’ gameplan and playing to his strengths as a shooting big man.

Finke joins senior guard Rayvonte Rice as the second player on the Illini roster from Centennial.

Groce said having two Champaign natives on Illinois’ roster is a positive for the program.

“We just want Illini guys,” Groce said. “Obviously, we recognize the importance of our state — the tradition that we’ve had of having in-state players — and that’s important to us. But at the same time, nothing ever really trumps having Illini guys. They’re cultural fits, the style of play fits, the school fits, and I think for both of those guys, it certainly has.”

Finke will wear No. 43 — the same number his father wore for the Illini when he played in 1987.  

And while he said his focus is on improving on the court in hopes of competing for more playing time, the awe of playing basketball for Illinois is something he can’t ignore.

“Growing up hearing stories about my dad and growing up watching Illinois, it’s awesome to put on this uniform — ‘Illinois’ on the chest, ‘Finke’ on the back — it’s a dream come true,” Finke said. “I’m just trying to take it in day-by-day.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @neumannthehuman.