Is Michael Finke good enough?
Finke and his family enjoyed their official University of Illinois visit last weekend, and the Centennial senior will sign next month for one of those 13 precious basketball scholarships ... an award that sophomore guard Mike LaTulip, now seemingly worthy, doesn’t receive ... an award that one or more members of the squad must give up next year when the Illini exceed the NCAA limit (don’t worry, Cliff Alexander, there’s always room for you).
Finke isn’t carving out a new trail through this thicket. There are always doubters when a local athlete elects to break into athletic forces at the Big U.
It’s the same question that was asked when Central linebacker J Leman enrolled, or when Centennial’s Trent Meacham transferred from Dayton. It is a question being drowned by strong practice performances as Drake transfer Rayvonte Rice heads into his first exhibition game against McKendree on Thursday night.
But Finke’s case is doubly difficult because he is walking into a hornet’s nest at his power forward position. He committed just before Christmas a year ago, about the same time as 6-foot-9 freshman Austin Colbert and many months before Western Michigan’s 6-8 Darius Paul elected to transfer (May) and four-star Memphis forward Leron Black announced his intentions (September).
This sets the stage for fierce competition at power forward next fall and in the years to come.
At this stage, there are similarities to the Brian Cardinal story. He was a senior at Unity in 1994-95. But Illini coach Lou Henson pursued and landed a mobile power forward and former local resident, Ryan Blackwell, from Pittsford, N.Y.
Concerned that the son of UI athletic trainer Rod Cardinal might be required to spend too much time on the bench — awkward for everybody — Henson elected to pass on Brian.
The coach lived to regret it. Brian redshirted at Purdue and then started 125 games, nine of which were victories against Illinois. Blackwell, meanwhile, spent one year as an Illini reserve (3.9 ppg) and transferred to Syracuse, where he averaged double figures, led the Orangemen in rebounding and made third-team all-conference on the Big East champs in 2000.
With hindsight, we can safely say the acquisition of Cardinal from nearby Unity would have had a profoundly positive impact on Lon Kruger’s Illini teams in the late ’90s.
This piece of history is significant because ... well, it is often the case that college coaches are reluctant to have a member of the local community seated unhappily on the bench.
But John Groce, second-year Illini coach, doesn’t carry the same concerns Henson did. He sees a 6-9 athlete with a natural shooting stroke, a budding talent that can be developed.
Furthermore, Jeff Finke, former Illini athlete and father of Michael, says the family is unequivocally supportive and excited about his son’s upcoming enrollment. With a wide smile, he says the competition is welcomed.
“Every time Mike is faced with a difficult challenge, he has proved himself,” said the dad.
Different strokes, different folks
For all you experts out there, be careful making projections about lanky youths. Some reach campus nearly as mature as they’re going to be, huskies like Efrem Winters, Jarrod Gee and Shaun Pruitt. Some arrive with already-advanced offensive skills: Deon Thomas and Brian Cook. A few make rapid strides (James Augustine, Meyers Leonard) and others take longer (Robert Archibald, Mike Davis).
They are hard to predict. Who can be sure how the Illini lineup will take shape in a year or two with all the unresolved possibilities?
Be advised it seldom turns out the way we expect.
ADD NOTE: Some of Groce’s aforementioned power forwards may ultimately play side by side. Colbert is even now learning the 5, Black has wing aspirations, and Paul is big enough (6-8, 220) to defend the post. And Malcolm Hill, forced to play the 4 this season, projects as a 3.
Let’s look back on this three years from now.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.