CHAMPAIGN — It’s spring break for Michael Finke.
Except there’s little indication it is spring.
On this particular early morning in late March, temperatures in the mid-teens flash on bank signs throughout Champaign-Urbana.
Frost is still evident on nearby fields. The wind is biting.
And there’s no break for the Centennial big man. Hardly.
Less than two weeks after his season with the Chargers ended in a Class 3A sectional title-game defeat, Finke is back in the gym.
Shooting. Dribbling. Pivoting. Finishing. Dunking. All on a half-court at the Stephens Family YMCA in southwest Champaign.
At the rim. Going up strong with either a one-handed dunk, two-handed jam or a forceful left-handed layup.
From 15 feet out on the left wing after he makes a curl cut around an imaginary screener before catching a crisp pass from his father, Jeff.
He squares his feet to the rim while receiving the pass, all in one motion, and flicks his wrist while keeping his non-shooting left hand virtually still against the ball to generate the necessary spin and, at the same time, deriving enough leverage from his legs for the ball to reach the hoop.
Swish. Six times in a row. Seven times in a row.
He and his father made the short drive from the family home to the YMCA before the sun had risen.
On five hours of sleep after a three-hour round trip the night before for a practice with his 17-and-under AAU team, the Peoria Irish. Finke didn’t get to bed until 1 a.m.
He was awake five hours later and in the gym by 7 a.m.
Most other high schoolers on spring break were still sleeping.
Not Finke, the 2013 News-Gazette All-Area Player of the Year.
Not the junior forward, who right now is the lone Illinois commit in the Class of 2014 for coach John Groce.
For Finke, all 6-feet-91/2 and 200 pounds, the grind continues.
Finke grew up around basketball. It’s hard not to when your father played basketball and football at Illinois in the late 1980s.
But his basketball career had an inauspicious beginning.
One that didn’t necessarily translate into college coaches giving him their best sales pitch.
“I don’t really remember this, but my family said the first game I ever played, I got the ball, ran to the wrong side of the court and shot it, but I made it,” Finke said with laugh 11 years later. “I guess my mom was going crazy, but my dad looked at her and said, ‘I need to teach him how to play.’ ”
He has. Father and son, and sometimes Michael’s two younger brothers, Nick, 15, a freshman at Centennial, and Tim, 13, a seventh-grader at Franklin Middle School in Champaign, tag along for the hour-long workouts that started a year ago.
Michael, who will turn 17 at the end of April, tries to get in the gym for individual workouts with his dad about three times a week in the offseason, and combines that with strength training and conditioning.
“Individual skill workouts are vital,” Jeff said. “They just help refine the skills, and we try to do a lot of it at game speed. Early mornings are a little tougher just because he’s still sleepy sometimes, so it takes him a while to get awake.”
Dad has one rule for the early-morning workouts, which take place either at 5:30 or 6 a.m. when school is in session.
“I’ll come any day, but they have to make sure they get me up,” he said. “I don’t wake them up. If they decide to come, it’s on them.”
During this specific workout, it was just Michael and Jeff.
Usually for the sessions, they have free rein of the basketball court at the YMCA.
“It’s a lot better to come in the morning than later in the evening when it’s a lot more packed,” Michael said. “You’ve got the gym to yourselves and you just get to play basketball.”
With half the court separated by a curtain while a youth basketball camp took place on the other side, Michael, after a good stretch, first went to work on his ball-handling. Dribbling two basketballs at the same time while in a stance, he kept the one in his left hand low to the ground in a staccato rhythm, with the ball never coming higher than his ankle.
In his right hand, he pounded out longer dribbles, with the ball coming up near his hip. Only once in the five-minute segment did a ball scatter away because of a dribbling miscue despite the alternating times he was bouncing both balls.
“A lot of times I work on my ball-handling,” Finke said. “I kind of went away from that a little bit in the season. I’m getting back into it. I just want to get my handles better so I can take care of it more outside.”
Still dribbling the two basketballs simultaneously, Michael worked on faking crossovers while going at game speed, along with dribbling figure eights around each leg and walking while dribbling both balls between his legs.
“We just kind of go with the flow,” Jeff said of the workouts, “but there’s some structure.”
Jeff doesn’t bark out commands.
He doesn’t check a prescribed sheet of paper to look at what drill to focus on next.
He’s mainly the passer and rebounder, offering brief advice but by no means dominating the workout.
No one interrupts the pair, although a few youngsters from the camp wander over and look at what Finke is doing. Some point and whisper at the 16-year-old wearing an orange Illinois T-shirt and navy blue shorts. The recognition Finke has received since his mid-December decision to join Groce’s program makes him well-known to Illinois fans around these parts.
“I’ve got a lot more Illinois gear, that’s for sure, and a lot more people, especially being in Champaign, have noticed me,” Finke said when asked how life has changed since he committed. “I may not know them, but I try to be nice and just say hey. There’s no hiding away from people. Even at some away games this season I’d see people in Illinois gear and they’d tell me that they were here to see me.”
Which is why he wants his game to progress even more. His 16.6 points and 7.7 rebounds paced a Chargers team that finished 22-9 and came within two wins of playing in a 3A state semifinal for the third time in last five seasons.
Finke is a multi-dimensional forward. He’s not afraid to step out beyond the three-point line — where he made a team-best 47 out of 132 attempts, good enough for a 36 percent clip — or go inside and dunk the ball.
“It helps that he can go inside or he can go outside,” Centennial coach Tim Lavin said. “Teams have to prepare for both. When we need big baskets, he seems to be there and gives you a good mental edge, knowing that he can score.”
The Finkes tailor Michael’s workouts to improving in both areas.
Shortly after he completes a quick Mikan drill, which consists of him finishing at the basket with both his left and right hand while keeping the ball up high, it’s time to work on his mid-range and three-point shooting.
Coming off a curl cut on the right wing inside the three-point line, Michael shot fakes with the ball on his right side before he switches the ball to his left side, hammers out one quick dribble with his left hand and pulls up for a 15-foot jump shot.
“That’s better,” Jeff says while he observes from the left wing. “Really exaggerate (the shot fake).”
He completes the same move on the next sequence but takes one long dribble and finishes with a one-handed dunk. A few moments later he goes in but converts with a left-handed layup.
“Don’t go up soft,” Jeff says, still with a calm voice. “Go up strong. Attack.”
Michael never once talks back to his dad. He doesn’t roll his eyes at the comments or avoid eye contact. He simply registers what his dad tells him and tries to incorporate it into his game. Jeff Finke coached the Champaign Franklin Middle School seventh-grade team
Tim played on to a second-place finish in Class 4A last month and is Michael’s coach with the Peoria Irish.
“Most people don’t want to get up at 5:30 or 6 in the morning and do shooting workouts before you go to school,” Lavin said. “He’s always just wanted to get better. He always has that competitiveness in him.”
Gavin Sullivan, the Irish director and U16 coach, first worked out Finke two years ago after his freshman season at Centennial ended.
The progression has been rapid, Sullivan said.
“He was a little slow, but obviously being 6-5 as a freshman, you kind of expect that,” Sullivan said. “He always had really good footwork and a good release on his shot. He’s not a high-level athlete, but he’s come a super long way.”
The athleticism Finke has might not compare well to a Jahlil Okafor, Cliff Alexander or Paul White, three other contemporaries of Finke’s in Illinois who are Division I prospects in a highly regarded Class of 2014 the state has to offer.
For Illinois fans wanting Finke to come in and earn the league’s Freshman of the Year accolade during the 2014-15 season, that scenario might not unfold.
At least not at this point in his development.
But respected recruiting analysts, like Dave Telep of ESPN and Joe Henricksen of the City/Suburban Hoops Report, feel Finke’s better days of basketball are ahead of him.
“Being in the middle of the recruiting piece, because not only was I dad, but I was his coach (with the Irish), the evolution was almost overnight of, ‘You’ve got to work to get better,’ to ‘You’ve got to work to get better, but now you have a purpose beyond that dream,’ ” Jeff said. “Now it’s reality. His work ethic has probably stepped up where some kids might settle. He has wanted it more. I don’t really have to say, ‘How many workouts are we doing this week and when are we working out?’ It’s more him coming in and saying, ‘Here’s what I want to do.’ ”
Like setting screens against fake opponents outside the three-point line and then flaring off wide for a three-point attempt. Or flashing hard from the left block to the right elbow, making his frame as wide as possible, catching the ball, ripping it through from near his right hip to his left, taking one hard dribble and going up for a dunk. Or catching the pass after making his flash and burying a mid-range jump shot. Or making 10 hook shots from each block, and then catching the ball in the post and countering with a dropstep back toward the baseline, away from where a defender could be shading him. Or starting in the right corner behind the three-point line and moving clockwise until he shoots from every spot along the arc.
All these components are pieces in Michael’s workout, one that is good enough for Finke to develop a solid lather on the court. It’s not just him going out and playing a game of HORSE with his dad. Far from it.
“I don’t want to worry about people saying I don’t work,” Finke said. “I know I do. It’s good to get up early and just get it done. This is the third or fourth time I’ve gotten up at six to come work out (during spring break), and even though I’m sick, I’m just trying to get it done. I have this and have AAU practice, and I lift with my dad and brothers, We’re just trying to get better as much as we can.”
The chatter is out there. The Finkes acknowledge it. Some Illinois fans are skeptical of the hometown kid making a dent in Groce’s rotation at Illinois. He isn’t as highly-ranked, right now, as some of the other juniors across the state on various recruiting services. Michael knows there are still doubters out there who question if he can contribute at Illinois.
Opposing student sections weren’t shy about throwing the “Overrated” chant at him during games this past winter if he missed a few shots in a row or committed a turnover.
“Michael’s handling it humbly,” his dad said. “He’s a pretty level-headed, balanced, humble kid overall. He knows there’s a whole lot of work to do. The U of I coaching staff are such great guys as well. We talk to them frequently about it. I went through it, so he’s been walked through in terms of the expectations. He doesn’t read the message boards and all of that. You very seldom see him pick up the paper. He’ll read some stuff about his team and (Illinois), but his focus is to just get better and have fun.”
In between the shooting and ball-handling drills, Finke stops and shoots five or 10 free throws. The perfectionist in him comes out after he misses three in a row, with a slight frown on his face.
Standing underneath the basket, Jeff tells him he needs to follow through all the way, flicking his wrist until it is bent and all five fingers are staring straight down at the court. Michael, like all young players, has a tendency to recoil quickly on the shot release.
Making the adjustment, Michael makes his next three — Jeff prefers to end each shooting segment on a make — and then he starts in on his final shooting drill.
This drill has him catching a baseline pass and utilizing the Sikma pivot, the move Jack Sikma, the former Illinois Wesleyan, Seattle SuperSonics and Milwaukee Bucks forward, demonstrated effectively during his playing career in the 1970s and 1980s. He alternates between shooting a baseline jump shot and attacking the basket off the pivot.
His vast array of moves and shots is what helped turn Finke into one of the state’s elite players this winter. His basketball knowledge also played a part in the transition, plus his physical maturity (Finke grew more than two inches and added 30 pounds from the end of his sophomore season to the end of his junior season).
“Last year for Centennial I wasn’t shooting it as much or as much as I should have,” Finke said. “It could have also been because I was a sophomore and didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes, but this year I knew I had to take charge. Whenever I had shots, I took them. Sometimes I probably took some shots I shouldn’t have, but in the end I think I did what I could to help my team out.”
By the time Finke’s senior season arrives at Centennial eight months from now, he’ll have had plenty of game experience against opponents he might see at Illinois. The Irish have tournaments in Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Louisville, Ky., before April ends, and Finke’s squad will make three more trips to Milwaukee and two separate trips to Fort Wayne, Ind., for AAU tournaments before August begins.
Despite the traveling and practices with the Irish, the workouts between father and son will most certainly continue. All in an effort to get better.
Lavin has coached some immense talents during his time at Centennial, including former N-G All-Area Players of the Year Rayvonte Rice, James Kinney and Trent Meacham, all of whom went on to play Division I basketball.
“We’ve had a lot of good ones lately,” Lavin said. “By the time it’s all said and done, he’ll be up there. It’s hard to say where right now, but he certainly is a good player. It will be interesting to see what he does next year, and then I’ll really be able to tell how he stacks up with the others.”