All-Area Boys' Basketball POY: UI recruit Finke repeats feat
CHAMPAIGN — Strolling along the halls of Centennial High School, Michael Finke greets a few classmates.
It’s hard to miss him. The Illinois signee is decked out in his columbia blue No. 42 Centennial jersey.
Finke responds casually with “What’s up?” or “How’s it going?” to the few passers-by after the bell rings to signal the end of another school day.
Ask the Illinois signee those same questions on this gray, mid-March afternoon and chances are the 17-year-old will respond positively.
Whether it’s about his weight (the 6-foot-9 forward is up to 2171/2 pounds), his game (constantly working on it) or his recent spring break vacation (somewhere warm). Even his singing. Yes, you read that right. His singing.
“He sings all the time,” said Artemis Comet, Finke’s girlfriend and fellow Centennial senior. “Anything by Justin Bieber.”
See, a minute after Finke navigates what is familiar territory at Centennial, he finds himself in a bit of an unfamiliar role.
At least one would think it unfamiliar for a future Big Ten basketball player. Then again, they probably have never met Finke.
He’s already gone through an early morning workout at the YMCA in southwest Champaign. Illinois men’s basketball strength and conditioning coach Mike Basgier has him working on a new lifting program four days a week involving heavier weights.
Finke meanders into Aldridge Auditorium at Centennial. Dressed in a white sweater with dark pinstripe dress pants, Finke is on the stage. Along with about 70 other classmates. Stretching. Snapping his fingers. Shaking his hips. Moving his feet.
No, it’s not basketball practice for the Chargers. Those ended the first week of March. This is a different type of practice. Before the 2014 News-Gazette All-Area Player of the Year runs out for warmups at State Farm Center sometime next November, wearing the No. 43 jersey his father, Jeff, used to don for Lou Henson’s teams, Michael Finke has something else to conquer.
Those Damn Yankees.
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Sue Aldridge is a veteran when it comes to the Centennial drama department. The director sits in the middle of the auditorium, clutching multiple pieces of paper bunched together, including the script for “Damn Yankees.”
When an actor isn’t talking loudly enough, she simply yells out, “Louder!” When the stagehands don’t change the scenes quick enough on stage, she barks out, “Quicker! Let’s move, people!”
She doesn’t take it easy, either, on Finke.
He has the role of Joe Hardy. The male lead in the production.
The role that demands Finke showcase his versatility, whether it’s nailing his lines with precision, making sure he hits the high notes he has in various songs or flawlessly executing his dance numbers.
When Finke doesn’t exit the stage after one scene ends, Aldridge shouts out, “Get off the stage, Michael!” Not in an intense way, like in the manner John Groce might exhort at some point out of his future player, but more of a measured clip to keep the rest of the dress rehearsal moving.
This isn’t Finke’s first foray into high school theater. He was part of the ensemble his freshman year when Centennial performed “Grease.”
How exactly Finke came to earning this role in “Damn Yankees” differs depending on whom you talk to.
“At the beginning of this year, the first day of school he said, ‘I’m auditioning for the musical,’ ” Aldridge recalled. “I said, ‘Great!’ Never thinking he would.”
Some persuasion from Marian Wyatt, a music teacher at Centennial, helped, too. So did having his girlfriend try out — and eventually getting the role of Lola, the female lead in the musical.
“Mrs. Wyatt came up to me during seventh hour the day of tryouts, and said, ‘I need you to go sign your name up because if you don’t do it, Michael won’t do it,’” Comet said. “Before that, Mrs. Aldridge came up to me ... and said that I needed to sign up. I was like, ‘This play sounds so boring. I don’t want to do it, and I’ve never done it before.’ It’s actually really fun.”
Or maybe he just listened to his mother, Laura Finke.
“I have always thought he has had some ability,” she said. “He always says, ‘No, mom, you’re just being a mom. I can’t sing.’ How ironic is it that he gets this role that has singing in it? I don’t know if he has a future in it, but he’s pretty good.”
Michael said not having AAU basketball this spring was a factor in his decision to try out for the musical. Of course, listening to his significant other provided another influence for Finke.
“They were begging Artemis to try out,” he said. “Then Mrs. Wyatt went up to art and said, ‘You’re both doing it.’ I said, ‘All right. I guess we’re doing it.’ I didn’t think I was going to get a big role at all. I just thought I’d be in the background. Help out with something. I guess she was impressed or something.”
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The ho-hum way Finke tells how he landed the role is fitting of his personality. He is talkative, but will sit and listen. He will show emotion after a rim-rattling dunk, but will slap hands with a teammate after a well-executed pass.
Impressive attributes weren’t hard to find during the past four months of Finke’s senior season with Centennial. He was a double-double threat every time he stepped on the court for the 24-5 Chargers. Foes could game plan all they wanted in trying to limit him. Few were successful considering he scored in double figures in 26 of his 29 games this season at Centennial. He connected on 64 percent of his shots from inside the three-point line, 79 percent from the free throw line and 32 percent from three-point range.
“He was a threat to score inside and out,” Centennial coach Tim Lavin said. “He put up big numbers despite being the focus of every opponent’s defense. In my opinion, Michael was clearly the best player in the area. His career numbers, honors and scholarship to Illinois speaks for itself.”
He didn’t get complacent, either, once he signed his letter of intent with Illinois — the first Centennial player to do so directly out of high school — on Nov. 13. He signed it on the same stage where he will perform in “Damn Yankees,” at 7 p.m. from April 3-5.
He increased his scoring average this past winter (from 16.6 to 19.6) and his rebounding average (from 7.7 to 9.3). Ditto with his field goal percentage and free throw percentage.
“He handled himself pretty well for the expectations and the way teams tried to plan their defense around him,” Lavin said. “He works hard, and he got a little bit better at everything this year. He did a better job of making himself available down in the post area, which was a big improvement. He was a little more willing to go down there this year.”
Finke led Centennial on a 15-game winning streak that started on Dec. 28 and didn’t stop until the season-ending loss to Champaign Central in a Class 3A regional championship game on March 8.
“That was heartbreaking,” Finke said. “It’s over just like that. Losing to your archrival Central at their place, it’s hard, especially when you had beaten them by nearly 20 earlier in the year. It was terrible.”
Wherever Finke went through central and East Central Illinois this winter, fans came out to see him play. Opposing student sections were prepared, too. Much like the crowds he will run into at a Big Ten venue in the future, they had done their homework on him.
“At Bloomington, they chanted ‘Art-emis!’ ” Finke said with a laugh about the crowd giving a shoutout to his beau. “It’s one thing for them to do it at Central, but being an hour away was interesting. Some schools said overrated, but I’m used to that.”
Signing autographs became common for Finke, too. The first instance happened shortly after he orally committed to Illinois in December 2012 during a game at Mahomet-Seymour.
“A bunch of kids came up to me, and I just started signing on the bench at halftime,” Finke said. “Coach was like, ‘You can’t do that now. Do it later.’ Ever since I started getting recruited, more people have started to notice me. I just try not to think about it. I do what I can and play my game. People think it’s hard to have pressure on you, but if you don’t have pressure on you, then people aren’t really caring about you.”
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No teammates are around. No media hovering. All alone, out on the stage at a recent play practice, Finke starts belting out a solo. If you’re not looking at who’s singing, you’d have no idea a future Big Ten forward is the one hitting all the right notes and octaves, his baritone voice sounding smooth in the nearly-empty auditorium. He still has a week to perfect all his lines and singing pieces before a live audience comes to watch him.
“When he’s on a mic, he’s tentative right now because he’s never worked with it,” Aldridge said. “When they have mics, it’s like being on ‘American Idol.’ You have to get used to all the technology.”
Finke mentioned to Illinois assistant coach Dustin Ford that once basketball ended he was focusing his time on “Damn Yankees.” But he had to juggle both basketball and rehearsals during the latter part of Centennial’s season.
“He came in and knocked everybody’s socks off during tryouts,” Aldridge said. “He was amazing. He came to call-back, and the kids thought, ‘Oh, she’s just putting him in because he’s Michael.’ No. He really can do the part. For the first three and a half weeks of the rehearsal process, we had to work around the basketball schedule. I called his parents to make sure it was really OK because he’s going to be burning the candle. I talked to Coach Lavin and said, ‘Basketball is first, but this is what I’m doing.’ He said, ‘Go for it.’ That’s the unique thing about Centennial is that the coaches are very supportive. He’s still finding himself, and it’s just rehearsing and doing it over. He has the work ethic like I’ve never seen.”
Hmmm. Sounds similar to his basketball game. Finke doesn’t necessarily mind having the label of a player who may take time to develop once he arrives at Illinois. Doesn’t necessarily mean he likes hearing it, though.
“Everyone wants to make those millions of dollars someday and be classified as a one-and-done guy,” Finke said. “I’m not going in there to sit. I’m going in there to work as hard as I can. It doesn’t matter to me if I’m a four-year guy or a five-year guy. As long as I can have a good career, help my team win and help my team win championships, that’s all I want to do. That’s the goal.”
If he develops into a successful player at Illinois, he’ll have many new fans of his game. He understands that. Finke sat with rapt attention whenever Dee Brown and Deron Williams were making plays at Illinois.
“Everyone in the YMCA leagues around here wanted to wear high socks and the headband just to be like Dee Brown,” Finke said. “Deron was Deron. He was fun to watch. When I was little, I didn’t think there would be any other place I could go besides Illinois. Once I started getting recruited, it expanded my thoughts, but I have all these memories about Illinois.”
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Finke will have someone he can show around Champaign-Urbana this summer. Someone Illinois fans are eager to see on the court, too. Leron Black, the Mr. Basketball winner in Tennessee this winter and the other recruit in Groce’s Class of 2014, will room with Finke next school year at Illinois.
“I’m real excited about that,” Finke said.
Baby pictures of Finke dressed in Illinois overalls litter the Finke family photo album. He’s attended so many games at State Farm Center he’s lost track.
On a recruiting visit to Illinois, Finke noticed a list inside the locker room at State Farm Center showing what numbers former Illinois players wore. He figured he’d pay homage to his father by choosing No. 43 — the number he wore during the 1987 season. He’ll become only the second player since his father wore 43, with Roger Powell Jr. sporting the number from 2002 to ’05.
“I kind of laugh with him about that,” Jeff Finke said. “It’s exciting, and I’m happy that he’s doing it, but if he wants to change that and wear another number, that’s fine by me.”
The Finke family was a familiar sight at State Farm Center the last two seasons.
Laura Finke already knows the reaction she’ll display when she sees the oldest of her four children come out for warmups.
“His first game at Illinois, I will cry,” she said. “He doesn’t even have to play. When the uniform is on his body and he is in the State Farm Center, I will cry.”
Their presence inside the renovated arena will only increase in the future since both sets of Michael’s grandparents live in Champaign. Jeff’s father, Don, perhaps foresaw sports playing an integral part of his grandson’s life. Before Michael arrived home from the hospital in early May 1996, Don Finke had put a basketball, baseball and football in each corner of his crib.
Finke stopped playing baseball five years ago and only played football in sixth grade, deciding to hone his vision on basketball. He said not concentrating solely on basketball from an early age has benefited him in not getting burnt out on the sport. Hitting his growth spurt in middle school — he was 5-7 in seventh grade before shooting to 6-2 in eighth grade and 6-5 his freshman year at Centennial — and developing better coordination has worked to Finke’s advantage as well.
“It was ugly to watch me run in middle school,” he said. “Real ugly.”
Not so much anymore. He’s only the fourth player to repeat as News-Gazette Player of the Year honors in the 29 years the honor has been bestowed, joining the likes of other Division I recruits like Verdell Jones III of Champaign Central, Brett Melton of Mahomet-Seymour and Kareem Richardson of Rantoul.
“He’s had a great filter to keep the super positive news tucked away and the super critical news tucked away, too,” Jeff Finke said. “We’ve just always tried to be consistent with him. I think he’s handled it very well.”
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Finke doesn’t mind if people question why he’s in a musical. Why he’s up there dancing. Singing. Acting. Displaying traits some people don’t associate with athletes. Especially high school athletes, who are still trying to find their footing in the world, along with their own identity.
He grasps that it’s not exactly the norm for a future Division I men’s basketball player to become heavily involved in the drama department. But he hopes it inspires others who may want to dabble in both sports and the fine arts.
“They see that a D-I athlete can do it, so can they,” Comet said. “It’s OK to step out of your comfort zone. It doesn’t really matter what other people say.”
Finke echoes the sentiment his girlfriend shares.
“All my friends just think it’s crazy that I’m doing it,” Finke said. “It shows people that you can try new things and do something different. A lot of people think that, ‘Oh, you’re a basketball player. You won’t be in the musical.’ If kids see that D-I athletes and regular athletes are doing it, they might think it’s cool, so they might do something like it later on.”
Finke has played basketball in front of thousands. His Twitter following stands at 3,633 and counting. The number of media interviews he’s done — a field he has indicated he might want to enter someday as he plans on majoring in communications at Illinois — is in the hundreds. The hours he’s spent developing his outside shot, his post moves, his defense and his strength are countless.
So, getting on stage and performing three live shows of “Damn Yankees” in a 72-hour window next week shouldn’t seem like a big deal to Finke, right? Well, wait and see. He is human after all.
“With my personality, I’m pretty outgoing,” Finke said. “I’ve always been confident, and I don’t really get embarrassed easily. I haven’t gotten nervous about the musical yet, but we’ll see when the spotlight comes on.”
All-Area Boys’ Basketball Players of the Year
YEAR NAME SCHOOL
2014 Michael Finke Centennial
2013 Michael Finke Centennial
2012 Travis Britt Rantoul
2011 Dylan Overstreet PBL
2010 Rayvonte Rice Centennial
2009 James Kinney Centennial
2008 Verdell Jones III Central
2007 Verdell Jones III Central
2006 Jordan Lee Central
2005 Brent Ruch Blue Ridge
2004 Trent Meacham Centennial
2003 Tyler Smith Unity
2002 Michael McKean CPCI
2001 DaJuan Gouard Danville
2000 Brett Melton M-S
1999 Brett Melton M-S
1998 Brian Martin Chrisman
1997 Corey Fox PBL
1996 Carvell Ammons Centennial
1995 Brian Cardinal Unity
1994 Anthony Coomes Central
1993 Craig Buchanan M-S
1992 Kareem Richardson Rantoul
1991 Kareem Richardson Rantoul
1990 Donnell Bivens Rantoul
1989 Brian Martin Buckley-Loda
1988 Dennis Miller Watseka
1987 Walter Hoult Chrisman
1986 Mark Edmundson Arthur
All-Area Boys’ Basketball Coaches of the Year
YEAR NAME SCHOOL
2014 Wayne McClain Champaign Central
2013 Brian Brooks St. Joseph-Ogden
2012 Dale Schuring Arthur-Lovington
NEWS-GAZETTE ALL-AREA FIRST TEAM
NAME SCHOOL YR. HT. POS.
Michael Finke Centennial Sr. 6-9 F
Connor Gross Cerro Gordo/Bement Sr. 6-0 G
Nate Michael St. Joseph-Ogden Sr. 6-2 G
Kameron Rowan Champaign Central Sr. 6-0 G
Brent Schluter St. Joseph-Ogden Sr. 6-3 F
Tyler Schuring Arthur-Lovington Jr. 6-0 F
Denzel Smith Danville Sr. 6-7 C
Nick Stokowski Monticello Sr. 6-2 G
Max Stutsman Salt Fork Sr. 6-4 F
Douglas Wallen St. Thomas More Fr. 6-3 F
NEWS-GAZETTE ALL-AREA SECOND TEAM
NAME SCHOOL YR. HT. POS. COACH
Ty Bolen Chrisman Sr. 6-1 G Greg Gisinger
Dedric Byrd Centennial Sr. 5-9 G Tim Lavin
Connor Diedrich Mahomet-Seymour Jr. 6-1 G Chad Benedict
Andrew Donithan Shiloh Jr. 6-3 F Charlie Carver
Conner Gremer Urbana Sr. 6-4 F Vashoune Russell
Johnny Jones Rantoul Sr. 5-10 G A.J. Richard
Mike Plecki St. Thomas More Sr. 5-11 Sr. G Matt Kelley
Michael Plunk Blue Ridge Sr. 6-3 G Kyle Watson
Kollin Seaman Arcola So. 6-2 G Chad Graves
Sean Suggs Champaign Central Sr. 6-1 F Wayne McClain
NEWS-GAZETTE ALL-AREA SPECIAL MENTION
NAME SCHOOL YR. HT. POS.
Nick Bates Tuscola Sr. 6-1 G
Andy Bott Bismarck-Henning Sr. 6-5 Sr.
Kylen Butler Danville Sr. 6-4 G
Marcus Catchings Urbana Sr. 6-6 F
Matt Chastain LeRoy So. 6-4 F
Ethan Chitty Judah Christian Sr. 6-7 F
Brennan Crose Hoopeston Area Sr. 5-8 G
Wyatt Fishel Arcola So. 5-9 G
Cyrus Furgeson Shiloh Jr. 5-8 G
Wilde Garowski Bismarck-Henning Sr. 6-8 C
Josh Hayes Cerro Gordo/Bement Sr. 6-4 C
Tyler Hinshaw Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley Jr. 6-0 G
Sam Hohlfelder Mahomet-Seymour Sr. 6-0 G
Terrion Howard Centennial Jr. 5-5 G
Ben Jennings Cissna Park Jr. 6-0 F
Storm Joop St. Thomas More Sr. 6-0 G
Mason Layden Hoopeston Area Sr. 6-2 F
Parker Lee Oakwood Jr. 6-3 G
Ross Learnard Salt Fork Sr. 6-0 G
Dominick Martin La Salette Sr. 6-1 G
Keegan McHood Artgenta-Oreana Jr. 6-2 F
Curtis Plank Arthur-Lovington Sr. 5-10 G
Alex Portwood Milford Jr. 6-4 G
Drew Schrodt Paxton-Buckley-Loda Sr. 5-10 G
Isiah Smith Champaign Central Sr. 6-0 G
Derrick Stain Sullivan Sr. 6-3 G
Jeffery Thompson Westville Sr. 6-1 G
Zach Thorson Unity Sr. 5-10 G
Kyle Williams Fisher Sr. 5-10 G
Dee Woods DeLand-Weldon Sr. 6-1 C
NEWS-GAZETTE ALL-AREA HONORABLE MENTION
ARCOLA — Nick Hudson, Jr.
ARGENTA-OREANA — Konnor Damery, So.
ARMSTRONG-POTOMAC — Shawn Johnson, Sr.; Dentler Loschen, Jr.
ARTHUR-LOVINGTON — Clayton Honn, Sr.; Jeremy Plank, Jr.
ARTHUR OKAW CHRISTIAN — Drew Beachy, Jr.; Isaiah Lowry, Sr.
ATWOOD-HAMMOND — Jordan Feagin, Sr.
BISMARCK-HENNING — Dylan Allen, So.; Chase Connelly, Sr.
BLUE RIDGE — Will Duggins, Sr.
BUCKLEY CHRIST LUTHERAN — Shane Hewerdine, Jr.; Jacob Lessman, Jr.
CENTENNIAL — Steven Lee, Jr.
CERRO GORDO/BEMENT — Cole Blickensderfer, Sr.; Nathan Lovekamp, Jr.
CHAMPAIGN CENTRAL — Lucas Beesley, Jr.; Wesley Dee, Sr.; Davion Watson, Sr.
CHRISMAN — Wyatt Avenatti, Sr.
CISSNA PARK — Josh Marquez, Sr.; Tyler Schuldt, Sr.
CLINTON — Jacob Overton, So.
DANVILLE — Jarhed Watson, Sr.
DeLAND-WELDON — Jay Woods, Sr.
DANVILLE FIRST BAPTIST — Jonathan Garver, Sr.
FISHER — Brody Farrar, Sr.; Grant Pointer, Jr.
GEORGETOWN-RIDGE FARM — Dylan Bina, Sr.; Aaron Scott, Jr.
GIBSON CITY-MELVIN-SIBLEY — Wiley Hasty, Sr.; Ross Royal, Sr.
HOOPESTON AREA — Daniel Lawson, Sr.; Trey Layden, Fr.
IROQUOIS WEST — Zach Small, Sr.; Austin Zirkle, Sr.
JUDAH CHRISTIAN — Logan Chitty, So.; Dylan Hamilton, Sr.
La SALETTE — Spencer Thomet, Sr.
LeROY — Nick Aupperle, Sr.; Joe Chastain, Sr.
MAHOMET-SEYMOUR — Jack Retig, Jr.; Christian Romine, Jr.
MILFORD — Jeff Cann, Jr.; Jake Rogers, Jr.
MONTICELLO — Noah Freemon, So.
OAKWOOD — Skyler Slade, Sr.
PAXTON-BUCKLEY-LODA — Jay Eshleman, Sr.; Tyler Rubarts, Sr.; Weston Weber, Sr.
PRAIRIE CENTRAL — Ed Shafer, Sr.; Hayden Wenger, So.
RANTOUL — Talon Hardin, Sr.; Kevonte Williams, Fr.
RIDGEVIEW — Christian Fannin, Sr.; Tyler McCormick, Fr.; Trey McCormick, Sr.
SALT FORK — Taylor Kirby, Sr.; Cole Taylor, Sr.
SCHLARMAN — Chris Kuchefski, Sr.; Ben Watson, Sr.
SHILOH — Eli Furgeson, Jr.
ST. JOSEPH-OGDEN — Hunter Hart, Sr.; Dalton Walsh, Sr.
ST. THOMAS MORE — Clavin Davis, Fr.; Kyler Jones, Sr.
SULLIVAN — Nick Frerichs, Jr.; Ty Molzen, So.
TRI-COUNTY — Drake Kirchner, Jr.
TUSCOLA — Zach Bates, Jr.
UNITY — Josh Larson, Jr.; Colby Mumm, Sr.
URBANA — Greg Boyd, Jr.; Shimaaz Ivy, Sr.
URBANA UNI HIGH — Taharka Baraka, Sr.
VILLA GROVE/HERITAGE — Chance Lemmon, Jr.; Jordan Wolf, Jr.
WATSEKA — Austin Hasselbring, Sr.
WESTVILLE — Kyle Brazas, Sr.
Final Top 10
SCHOOL (Previous) REC.
1. Champaign Central (3) 18-11 Last 20-win season, 2007-08
2. STM (2) 23-8 First 20-win season since 2009-10
3. SJ-O (4) 26-4 Fourth straight 20-win season
4. Centennial (1) 24-5 Two consecutive 20-win seasons
5. A-L (5) 25-3 Two consecutive 20-win seasons
6. Salt Fork (6) 24-9 Tenth straight 20-win season
7. CG/B (7) 23-6 First 20-win season since 2008-09
8. Bismarck-Henning (8) 26-4 Three consecutive 20-win seasons
9. Milford (10) 18-6 Last 20-win season 2004-05
10. Sullivan (—) 19-9 Last 20-win season 2001-02