Michael Finke picks Grand Canyon

Michael Finke picks Grand Canyon

CHAMPAIGN — Grand Canyon always had something none of the other 60-plus programs that reached to Michael Finke after he announced his intent to transfer from Illinois could ever offer. The chance to play with his younger brother, Tim, for one season after the youngest of the Finke sibling signed with the Antelopes back in November.

But Grand Canyon had other draws. Like a connection to former Illini Jerry Colangelo, a major supporter of the only for-profit Division I school in the country. And former NBA all-star Dan Majerle coaching a team that had a need on the basketball court with just two other frontcourt players on the roster.

From 60-plus programs to a final five of Grand Canyon, Nevada, Penn State, Stanford and Vanderbilt, Finke announced his decision to play for the Antelopes in 2018-19 as a graduate transfer on Wednesday afternoon.

“I know everyone’s going to say I was going to Grand Canyon all the time, but truthfully it wasn’t like that at all,” Finke told The News-Gazette. “This is honestly one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make. Every school I visited, truthfully I could have seen myself at every school.

“(Grand Canyon) was just something I couldn’t pass up, not to mention my brother is going to be there and being able to be around him for a year and really help him work and be the best influence I can for him and just having fun with him.”

The Finke brothers grew up playing multiple sports together — from wiffle ball to basketball to soccer — but this coming season will be their first opportunity to play on the same team save for a fall league team when they were both part of the Illinois Irish program.

That aspect certainly had an appeal to the elder Finke.

“We’ve always been a part of each other’s lives in that way in sports, but we’ve never really been on a true, organized team,” Finke said. “With me having all this experience in college, I’ll be able to be there for him and help him through the tough times and truly try and make him the best player he can be. He’ll push me, too.”

Finke also ran his choice past his younger brother. He said he would have willingly moved on to another program if Tim wasn’t 100 percent behind his decision.

“This was the school he picked first and the school he fell in love with,” Finke said. “I didn’t want to overstep my boundaries and take his spotlight or his shine in any way. I wanted to make sure he was truly OK with it and wanted me there. Obviously, he was thrilled with it and didn’t want me anywhere else but there. It all worked out.”

Finke’s decision to transfer to Grand Canyon finalized the future basketball plans for all three Illinois transfers after Mark Smith chose Missouri earlier this month and Te’Jon Lucas opted to return home and play at Milwaukee, announcing that decision on Tuesday.

Finke’s Wednesday news was followed closely by Illinois confirming freshman forward Matic Vesel was leaving the program to return to his native Slovenia to pursue other opportunities.

Vesel’s departure gives Illinois two open scholarships for the 2018-19 season. Finke was able to find a new basketball home at Grand Canyon because the Antelopes were in a similar situation, and coach Dan Majerle still has four open scholarships to use.

Finke will provide a veteran presence in the Grand Canyon frontcourt with only rising sophomores Roberts Blumbergs and Alessando Lever returning. Starting power forward Keonta Vernon exhausted his eligibility in 2017-18, and fellow forward Kerwin Smith announced he would leave as a graduate transfer in mid-March.

Finke also hits the mold of the type of big man Majerle has targeted at 6-foot-10 with an ability to stretch the floor. Both Lever and Blumbergs — also 6-10 — shot more than 75 three-pointers last season, with the former shooting 32.1 percent from deep.

“Coach Majerle, obviously with his NBA experience, he gets the game of basketball,” Finke said. “(Playing with Lever) along with our other bigs being able to complement each other we’ll be really tough to guard. Coach Majerle loves drawing up different plays and getting out and running and running different offenses to space the floor. I just feel like it’s the right fit in that regards.”

Finke said both Majerle and Grand Canyon assistant coach TJ Benson stressed he would be asked to be a leader for the Antelopes, who are short on any upperclassmen at this point. The goal is for Finke to help lead Grand Canyon to its first NCAA tournament after the Antelopes completed their transition to full Division I status this past season.

“We’ll be a really good team that can make a run at the conference championship and make the tournament,” Finke said. “That’s something that they kept preaching to me that they want to do and go down in history being the first team to make it. That’s something I want to be a part of.”