CHAMPAIGN — Caroline and Finke.
If you are a University of Illinois sports fan of an older generation, the names undoubtedly ring a bell.
In the case of J.C. Caroline, the name surely resonates with a Big Ben-like force for those who caught the College Football Hall of Famer's dazzling act at Memorial Stadium and followed his career on into the NFL.
Jeff Finke, too, has discovered that Illini fans can have long memories when it comes to their favorite university's athletic teams. Originally a member of a storied basketball recruiting class that included Nick Anderson, Kendall Gill and Stephen Bardo, the 1986 Casey-Westfield High School graduate instead ended up playing four years of football as a tight end for UI coaches Mike White and John Mackovic.
How that transpired is a story Finke's son now knows by heart, thanks to inquisitive Illini supporters of a certain age.
"He's always amazed when I get asked that question about how did you get hurt but you could play football," said Jeff Finke, a multisport prep standout who switched sports after suffering a back injury early in his UI basketball career. "I don't know how many times he's heard that question asked of me over the years."
These days, a younger generation in the Caroline and Finke family tree is making a name for itself, too. Caroline's grandson, Jordan, is a sophomore starting center for the Champaign Central varsity basketball team. Across town, classmate and fellow post player Michael Finke is wrapping up his first season as a varsity starter at Centennial.
And when longtime Illini fans learn of their last names, it's not uncommon for them to connect the dots.
"Not a bunch of people my age know, but definitely the older people do," Jordan Caroline said recently. " ' Oh, you're J.C. Caroline's grandson.' Yeah, that's me."
Said Finke: "Some of the older people may recognize the name. 'Oh, I remember watching your dad play football back in the day.' I just laugh (and say) 'Oh, that was his glory days.' "
Jayna Caroline describes her son and her father as "two peas in a pod."
"They're a lot alike," Jordan's mother said. "They're both tenacious, quite determined when it comes to something they want to do. They find ways to accomplish it."
It's clear that Jordan Caroline has a close relationship with his grandfather, who turned 79 last month.
"He's one person who I can honestly call my hero," the Maroons sophomore said. "He's always been there for me, always had a word of advice."
"Keep a level head. Work hard. Always stay hungry."
Speaking of hunger, one of their favorite routines is to go to lunch or dinner together and then check out the sports offerings on TV.
"He loves to go to Steak 'n Shake," Jordan said. "He goes there like every day; I kid you not. So we usually go there, or like Perkins (Restaurant). Then we'll go back to his house or mine and watch a game together."
J.C. Caroline's game, of course, was football. A consensus All-America halfback for the Illini in 1953 — when he led the nation in rushing — Caroline played one season in the Canadian Football League before beginning a 10-year run with the Chicago Bears, primarily as a defensive back.
Although Jordan's sport of choice is basketball, he's learned that the family name is most strongly linked to the gridiron.
"(People) ask how he's doing," Jordan said of his grandfather, "and then they ask, 'Do you play football, too?' "
Not yet, although the 6-foot-5, 223-pounder says he's seriously considering giving it a shot next fall.
"You look at him, he's got a big-time football body," Central basketball coach Scott Davis said.
Considering his lineage, that should not be surprising. Jordan's father, Simeon Rice, was a two-time All-America linebacker at the UI who went on to a 12-year NFL career and was a four-time All-Pro.
Jordan's sports genes don't stop there. Jayna Caroline was a standout track athlete at Central — a sport her father also competed in — and she convinced her son to follow in her sprint steps last spring.
"Mostly to work on his speed for basketball," Jayna said. "And he needs to do something in the offseason, and he enjoys it."
Should Michael Finke choose to do so, he could draw on his father's wealth of experience and expertise in multiple sports.
Jeff Finke was a three-sport all-stater at Casey-Westfield who attracted not just the attention of college basketball and football recruiters but professional baseball scouts, too. In fact, he was offered a contract by the St. Louis Cardinals after impressing at a tryout camp coming out of high school.
Michael was immersed in basketball and baseball while growing up before deciding to focus on the former sport last year.
His father won't quibble with that decision.
"I definitely would say Michael's skills are better than mine (at a similar age)," said Jeff Finke, a four-year varsity basketball starter at C-W. "I probably had a little better statistics as a sophomore, but he's playing much, much better competition."
Michael credits his father with playing an ongoing role in his basketball development, not only as his one-time youth coach but through individual training sessions and most recently as an assistant with Michael's Peoria Irish summer AAU program.
"We do drills — shooting drills, cone dribbling," the 6-foot-7 1/2 Charger said. "He knows (basketball). He's been there. So he can help me with what I need to look forward to, and he knows how to get there."
The elder Finke can offer advice, too, on a recruiting process that's already begun for his son. Michael has made unofficial visits to his father's alma mater (twice), Illinois State and Bradley, and has been contacted by Davidson and South Dakota State.
"This year, with all this recruiting process, it's bringing back memories of his life, too," Michael said, "and he's telling me more about it."
Jeff Finke, who made his home in Champaign-Urbana after graduating from the UI, certainly remains visible in the community as a Team Finke real estate agent with his wife, Laura. These days, however, Michael's father insists the family name draws attention more for basketball reasons.
"Some longtime Illini fans remember me," Jeff Finke said, "but the baton has definitely been passed, and they recognize (the name) more from an athletic standpoint for Michael than they do for me."
Before they were on opposite sides of basketball's Battle of Champaign, Michael Finke and Jordan Caroline were teammates.
As fifth-graders, each played on a travel basketball team that Jeff Finke helped coach called the Champaign Thunder. They also were youth baseball teammates and attended Barkstall Elementary School together before Jordan Caroline briefly relocated to California with his family.
"Jordan and me, we go way back," Michael said.
"He's definitely a good friend of mine," Jordan said, "so it's definitely fun (to compete against each other now). I give it my all when I play him."
When it comes to basketball, this clearly is a mutual-admiration society.
"He's strong," Michael said. "He has a great body. He's a great basketball player. He can jump out of the gym, too."
Jordan's scouting report on his Chargers counterpart?
"He can definitely shoot the ball," Caroline said. "He's a decent ball handler, too. Rebounds very well, too."
Since Finke was on the freshman team last season while Caroline played on JV, the two had yet to square off on the prep hardwood before this season. So far, it's a 1-1 draw. A third meeting this season is possible if the Maroons and Chargers each advance to the Class 3A Rantoul Regional title game Friday.
If not, Caroline and Finke still have two more seasons to leave their imprint on the Battle of Champaign. And on their teams.
That's an exciting prospect for their respective coaches.
"He's just going to get better and better," Chargers coach Tim Lavin said of Finke, who leads Centennial in rebounding (6.8) and ranks second in scoring (11.1). "He's skilled. He's got the ability to step out and shoot it. And he's got the ability to get stuff close to the basket.
"His biggest thing — and he knows it — is he needs to get physically stronger. He gets pushed around at times and gets the ball taken from him at times. But he's the type of kid that will continue to work hard and get in the weightroom and get it done."
Davis admits he wasn't convinced Caroline was ready to step into a starting role as the season opener neared. Then the sophomore produced a near double-double (14 points, nine rebounds) in his varsity debut and followed with 13 points against a Washington team currently ranked No. 3 in Class 3A.
On a senior-laden Maroons team, Caroline ranks second in rebounding (6.1) and third in scoring (6.8).
"He's been a solid contributor all year," Davis said. "Right now, Jordan's primarily going to take the ball to the basket. And, as a coach, you love that. He's got some great drop-step moves. He's got some great individual post-up moves, and he's not shy of contact."
But just as Lavin sees room for growth on Finke's lanky frame, Davis sees a gap begging to be filled in Caroline's offensive repertoire.
"When you watch Jordan shoot, he's got outstanding form and he shoots the ball really well from 15 feet," the Central coach said. "And for whatever reason, in games, he to this point has been reluctant to do it. But we keep encouraging him to feel free to take that midrange jumper. It's there. And if people are going to give it to you, you've got to be able to hit that."
GAME 1 — Centennial (4) vs. Urbana (5), 7:30 p.m.
GAME 2 — Rantoul (1) vs. Winner game 1, 7:30 p.m.
GAME 3 — Central (2) vs. Mahomet-Seymour (3), 7:30 p.m.
Winner Game 2 vs. Winner Game 3, 7:30 p.m.
Record vs. regional field: 1-1
Last regional title: 2011 (Class 2A)
Comment: With regional crown, Eagles would match most wins since 1963-64 season (23-6)
Record vs. regional field: 3-1
Last regional title: 2008 (Class 3A)
Comment: Maroons hoping Corvon Butler (calf) can return after missing regular season finale
Record vs. regional field: 2-2
Last regional title: 2010 (Class 3A)
Comment: Bulldogs have lost four of last five, but win was against top-seeded Rantoul
Record vs. regional field: 2-3
Last regional title: 2011 (Class 3A)
Comment: Junior forward Phillip Wright has produced 22-point games in three of last six
Record vs. regional field: 2-3
Last regional title: 1989 (Class 2A in two-class era)
Comment: By reaching regional final, Tigers would assure first winning season since 2004-05 (16-9)