Illini big men focusing on staying strong in the paint

Illini big men focusing on staying strong in the paint

CHAMPAIGN — Perhaps you've heard this stat sometime in the last 11 days. Leron Black and Michael Finke combined for just one rebound in the first half of Illinois' charity exhibition game against Eastern Illinois University.

It's a stat Illini coach Brad Underwood made sure to repeat a couple times.

The rest of that game didn't turn out particularly well for Illinois' most experienced players — at least in terms of seasons spent with the Illini. Offensively, they were fairly productive, but they were bested on the block by the Panthers in rebounding and toughness.

Underwood wanted more from Black and Finke. Through the first two games? He has gotten it from both.

The Illinois big man duo averaged 30.5 points and 12.5 rebounds combined in the wins against Southern and Tennessee Martin. They've been the spark at the beginning of games the Illini need, and Black set a career high with 23 points and grabbed a team-high eight boards on Sunday against the Skyhawks.

"I've been trying to lead this team on and off the court," Finke said. "I think the thing for me when adversity hits is trying to push it even more and trying to get people under control. I've been trying to do what I can. I've still got a long way to go with that."

Black isn't quite the vocal leader Finke is — even if the latter hasn't had much practice at it. Still, Black is trying to impress good traits he's learned on Illinois' young roster.

"I've been trying to just lead by example as much as I can and just try to talk to the younger guys and teach them what I've learned since I've been here," Black said. "Teach them all the stuff the older guys taught me when I was younger."

Graduate transfer Mark Alstork aside, the rest of Illinois' rotation doesn't have much experience. Junior guard Aaron Jordan played sparingly his first two seasons, sophomores Te'Jon Lucas and Kipper Nichols are still defining their game and three true freshmen — Mark Smith, Trent Frazier and Da'Monte Williams — are just two games into their Illini careers.

"Freshmen and sophomores are usually inconsistent," said Sean Harrintgon, a former Illini guard turned ESPN analyst. "You need your upperclassmen to be consistent. You need those guys to continue to do that, so the young guys can settle in and not feel the pressure that they need to come in and have big nights every night."

Underwood now wants more from Black and Finke after they've shown the aggressive style of play he's looking for following the loss to Eastern Illinois.

Part of that's play calling on the coaching staff. Underwood said — based on how productive the duo has been shooting 65 percent from the field combined — he's not getting them the ball enough.

"I need Michael to shoot the ball more," Underwood said. "If I have a frustration with him, I need him to shoot the ball more. He's an elite level shooter.

"Leron is a very, very hard guard in that 15- to 17-foot area. We got the ball on the baseline early. We got him the ball in the high post. We got it to him on the block. He's a load."