Asmussen | Fresh digs doing ex-Illini standout Michael Finke wonders

Asmussen | Fresh digs doing ex-Illini standout Michael Finke wonders

He doesn't have to deal with the Boilermakers, Hawkeyes or Hoosiers. Not anymore.

Instead, Michael Finke plays against the Kangaroos, Vaqueros and Roadrunners.

After spending the first four years of his basketball career at Illinois, Finke wanted a change.

So, he left Champaign, the only city he had ever known, to play in faraway Phoenix. For basketball newbie Grand Canyon, a member of the WAC.

How different is it? Well, while we were all freezing Tuesday afternoon, Finke was sitting poolside at his Arizona area apartment. The temperature was 75 degrees. Windchill: 75 degrees.

"It's pretty cool to come out here by the pool every day when it's warm and soak it all in," Finke said. "I'll take it as much as I can get."

Finke had plenty of other options after announcing he would leave Illinois. Besides Grand Canyon, his finalists were Nevada, Penn State, Stanford and Vanderbilt.

Picking the Antelopes just felt right.

"I think it was a great decision," Finke said. "I've loved every aspect of it. Being around my brother (Tim). Being able to play on the same team. Being around Coach (Dan) Majerle. I've been able to grow up more as a person just being away from home. ... I have to do everything on my own for the most part."

He's in a much bigger place. Champaign's population is 87,000. Phoenix is 1.6 million.

Listed at 6-foot-10, Finke can hide in plain sight.

"I can go out to eat here after a game and no one knows who I am," Finke said. "It's definitely different."

On the court, it's been all good. Statistically, Finke is having the best season of his career. Entering tonight's game at Utah Valley, he is third on the team with 12.3 points per game. He is second on the team in rebounding with 5.2 per game.

He is shooting the ball well, hitting 55 percent of his shots from the floor and 84 percent of his free throws.

"I'm playing with ultimate confidence," Finke said. "Confidence is everything. Last year, I really struggled mentally at times and it kind of affected me in different aspects of the game. This year, I've come to the point where if I miss one, two, three, four, how many shots in a row, I'm not really fazed by it at all. I'm just going to keep shooting it and know my teammates and coach have confidence in me."

His best game? Easy: Feb. 27 against Eastern New Mexico. Finke hit 14 of 20 shots from the field, including 6 of 11 threes. He was 4 of 4 at the free-throw line, as well, to finish with a career-high 38 points. He also had eight rebounds, six assists and cleaned up the concession stands after the game.

"I was just in a zone with it," Finke said. "My teammates were able to find me in open spots and shots started going in. It was a surreal feeling, honestly. It felt like back in high school, having that ultimate freedom."

It was the most points Finke scored in a game since he dropped 42 on Kankakee while starring at Centennial.

The WAC recognized Finke, naming him its Player of the Week. He also scored 26 points against Cal Bakersfield. It was his second consecutive weekly honor.

"Coach Majerle has been telling me all year to be aggressive," Finke said. "I finally started listening to him the past few weeks. I knew for our team, I really needed to step it up and start being more of a leader on the court."

Finke has made adjustments. Coming in, he wasn't sure what the school wanted from him. He has figured it out.

"I didn't want to overstep my boundaries at all," Finke said.

And he didn't want to big-time everyone else.

"Acting like I'm better than everyone," Finke said. "There's a lot of great players on this team and in this conference. Playing at the D-I level is a huge accomplishment for everyone."

Change of venue

Life in the WAC is different. Not as cushy as in the Big Ten. Grand Canyon takes commercial flights to its games. The only charter this season was the trip home from Northern Iowa. The crowds are different too. In the Big Ten, Finke played in packed arenas.

"There are some schools in the WAC we've gone and they've had 100 people in the stands," Finke said. "It's totally different playing on the road."

GCU Arena is not one of those buildings. They more than pack the place. The listed capacity is 7,000. There were 7,497 there for the most recent home game. Call the fire marshal.

"Our home atmosphere is insane," Finke said. "I've never seen anything like it in the Big Ten."

The student section is called "The Havocs."

"It's half the arena," Finke said. "They do chants the whole game. The whole student body is so involved. They are the loudest people I've been around."

Tournament talk

After tonight's game, the Lopes play at Seattle on Saturday in the regular-season finale.

Grand Canyon is 18-10 overall and 10-4 in the WAC. It will be a No. 2 or 3 seed in the WAC tournament, scheduled for March 14-16 at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.

To make the NCAA field for the first time in school history, the Lopes need to win the WAC tournament. They will have to knock off WAC champion New Mexico State, which is 26-4.

The teams played twice this season, the Aggies winning both by a combined five points.

"It's going to be a big challenge for us," Finke said. "Hopefully, we can do our job and meet them in the championship and go from there."

Family first

Of course, Finke misses his hometown. Misses being near his parents, Jeff and Laura, and his siblings.

When he played for the Illini, he lived on his own.

But going home was always an option. For a good meal. Or to say hello.

"My freshman year, my mom did my laundry all the time, which was nice," Finke said.

And his family could come to every game. Without getting on a plane.

"Just being around everyone was a true blessing those four years," Finke said.

Finke is there for his brother, a freshman with the Lopes. Tim is averaging 3.9 points and 3.2 rebounds in 28 games.

"I'm definitely trying to look over him and help him with whatever it is, whether in life or basketball," Michael Finke said. "I'm trying to be a good influence on him.

"Having my brother here has been a big plus."

The Finke family will all be together in Las Vegas for the WAC tournament. Jeff, the coach at Champaign Central, led his team to the Class 3A sectional semifinals before the Maroons closed out the season on Tuesday night.

Keeping tabs

Finke follows Illinois. Closely. He watches the games whenever possible and still talks with Illini senior Aaron Jordan and Tyler Underwood.

"Most of my closer friends that were on the team have all left," Finke said.

Finke, who earned a communications degree at Illinois, is working on a master's degree at the Jerry Colangelo School of Business and wants to play pro basketball overseas. But before that, he'll try to lead Grand Canyon to the school's first-ever NCAA tournament berth. While keeping an eye on the Illini.

"I've really enjoyed following them this year," Finke said. "They've had some good runs at times. They're still a really young team, but they're learning, they're getting better. Hopefully, they can make a run in the Big Ten tournament."

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

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