UI 64, Valpo 52: Notebook (Seth Davis, Finke, Beesley)

CHAMPAIGN — Joel Beesley answered the question diplomatically.

The former Valparaiso player, whose career with the Crusaders ended in 1994, is a teacher at Urbana University High after previously serving as the Illineks’ boys’ basketball coach.

“I’m hoping it’s a good, competitive basketball game,” Beesley said with a laugh before Wednesday night’s game.

Beesley — who did in fact see a competitive game — never played Illinois during his career with Valparaiso but was in attendance for Illinois’ 53-49 win against the Crusaders during the 1998-99 season and again when Illinois beat the Crusaders 93-56 in Champaign during the 2004-05 season.

“The first time I saw them, the Illini were not that great and it was a competitive game,” Beesley said. “The second one was the Final Four season. Both teams this year seem to be on the uptick of success with recruiting and with their play.”
Beesley never played with Valparaiso coach Bryce Drew but did play for his father, Homer. Homer’s other son, Scott, the head coach at Baylor, started his coaching career as an assistant at Valparaiso during Beesley’s senior season.

“He was only two years younger than me, so he was like a peer of ours with that senior class,” Beesley said. “That was a little different.”

Bryce Drew’s career at Valparaiso started just as Beesley’s was ending. He’s not surprised to see the former Chicago Bull keep on with the family tradition. And keep on with the success of the program.

“We actually went back recently and were in the basketball offices talking to Bryce and Roger Powell and seeing all the things that have changed,” Beesley said. “The success that they had starting with the Sweet 16 run (in 1998) helped allow people to say the name publicly. Before the Sweet 16 season, people were struggling to say the name correctly. Everybody knows the name now.”

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Seth Davis provided his expert analysis on Wednesday night’s BTN broadcast for the first time.

The senior writer at Sports Illustrated doesn’t match Bill Raftery when it comes to sitting courtside with multiple television monitors nearby. He has worked the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament for AXS TV the last few years and called a Dayton-Xavier game for CBS Sports Network last year. He will continue to handle his writing and studio duties for CBS this season but will get a chance to work a few games for BTN.

“It was something that I was looking to do more of,” Davis said. “It was just a matter of my agent working the phones to see what was out there and who was interested. BTN was the only one dumb enough to say yes, so that’s basically how it came about.”

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Davis recently moved to Los Angeles and, with the upcoming January release of his book, “Wooden: A Coach’s Life,” about UCLA coaching legend John Wooden, said he wanted to see if he could land more TV work.

“I like it all,” he said. “I like to write. That’s still kind of my main thing ... but I had the ability and the time to explore new things. Doing color is something I’ve wanted to do. I think I can do it. Obviously, I’ll be better on my 100th game than I will on my 10th.”

Davis said he hopes to follow the example of another Sports Illustrated writer, Tom Verducci, who has done analyst work on MLB games.

“It’s really the same skill set,” he said. “You’re preparing, you’re collecting information, you’re disseminating it and you’re just talking ball. It’s really not rocket science.”

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Like many college basketball aficionados, Davis is keeping close watch on what transpires Friday afternoon. Three of the country’s top prospects in the Class of 2014 — Chicago Whitney Young center Jahlil Okafor, Apple Valley (Minn.) point guard Tyus Jones and Chicago Curie power forward Cliff Alexander — all will decide on their college destinations. Possibly at the same time, as all three are set to announce on ESPNU in a special starting at 3 p.m. Alexander has Illinois among his final four schools.

“Unfortunately, we’re not allowed to talk about it on the air because it’s affiliated with the conference, which I didn’t know, but nobody knows (where Alexander is going),” Davis said. “I’m not sure if Cliff knows, to be honest. The way that it is tied in with the Okafor-Tyus Jones thing is really odd to me.”

Davis doesn’t envy the job Illinois’ John Groce — along with other college coaches — has in attempting to land these high-profile recruits.

“It’s a heckuva way to make a living as a college coach to try to figure out these kids and to get them to come to your school,” Davis said. “I think it looks pretty good for Illinois but not great. It won’t be great until he says where he’s going.”

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Davis arrived in Champaign on Monday and watched Illinois practice. Seeing transfers Aaron Cosby, Darius Paul and Ahmad Starks in person, along with the current players available for Illinois, gave him a good idea of what the present and future hold for Groce.

“He’s in a little bit of a rebuilding mode,” Davis said. “But he’s got some nice pieces. We’ll see when it all comes together. Expectations are high around here, as well they should be. I think fans are understanding the trajectory of the program and like what they see.”

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Davis made the drive up to Chicago on Tuesday night to check out the doubleheader featuring Michigan State-Kentucky and Kansas-Duke at the United Center. He likes what Tom Izzo — whose team visits Champaign on Jan. 18 before the Illini make the trip to Breslin Center on March 1 — has to work with this season.

“Michigan State was my No. 1 team in the preseason, so I wasn’t surprised (the Spartans won), but I wouldn’t have been surprised if they lost, either,” Davis said. “Kentucky is really, really good, and you could see those kids growing up during the course of the game. I talked to Izzo after the game, and he had a good point. I asked him, ‘Kentucky is so young. Will they get a lot better?’ Izzo said, ‘They’ll get a lot better, but we’re going to get a lot better, too.’ ”

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Michael Finke celebrated the occasion by wearing an orange Illinois hooded sweatshirt.

One of many Illini-related apparel the Illinois recruit has in his wardrobe.

Orange was a common theme among the family members who shared the stage with him Wednesday afternoon at Centennial in a signing ceremony to commemorate the letter of intent Finke inked earlier Wednesday.

“He has so much support,” said Laura Finke, Michael’s mother. “The local piece of it, too, is really exciting. I’m not surprised in how well he’s handled it because from the time he was tiny, he’s been very mature and steady. He’s almost prepared for it. When you see your child go through the media and the hype, he’s not letting it get to his head.”

Michael’s father, Jeff Finke, played basketball and football at Illinois in the late 1980s. The recruiting process has changed dramatically since then, but having his father to lean on has benefited the future Illini. The elder Finke was just as excited as his oldest son Wednesday.

“It’s fantastic,” Dad said. “It’s a dream for him, and he’s worked his butt off for it, so we’re just excited for Michael and humbled as parents. We’re looking forward to this high school season and the next four years of college.”

But he knows more work will go into his son developing into a player Groce can use at some point in the next four years.

“Because of his work ethic and knowing this is a journey and it’s a beginning, a step in the process, this is one of those days that’s fun to celebrate,” Jeff Finke said. “But he got up and lifted at 5 a.m. this morning before he (had an afternoon practice with Centennial).”

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Gavin Sullivan might have mixed emotions if Illinois and Valparaiso meet again.

The coach of the Peoria Irish AAU program was at Centennial earlier Wednesday for Michael Finke’s signing ceremony before he made the short drive to State Farm Center. The reason? One of his former players with the Irish, freshman forward Alec Peters, started and finished with seven points and three rebounds in 30 minutes for Valparaiso. Peters, who played at Washington, finished fifth last season in Mr. Basketball voting in Illinois.

“It’s been a good day for us,” Sullivan said. “Obviously with Michael, we’ve known for a while he’s coming here, but he got a big weight lifted off his shoulders. He was super excited this afternoon.”

Peters has cracked the starting lineup for the Crusaders early in his career. No surprise to Sullivan.

“A lot of freshmen come in and they’re not prepared in the sense of understanding all aspects,” Sullivan said. “He knows how to play the game. He’s big, and he’s got a lot of skill to him.”

Sullivan showed off some skill on the custom-made T-shirt he wore to Wednesday night’s game. On the front it had the Peoria Irish logo, and on the back it featured a side-by-side logo of Valparaiso and Illinois, with Peters, Class of ’13, and Finke, Class of ’14, underneath their respective schools.

“I didn’t know how to come to the game,” Sullivan said with a laugh. “I’ve got a lot of Illinois gear; I’ve got some Valpo gear, and I said, ‘I can’t wear either one.’ I figured I might as well make something that had both of them on there.”
 

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