The Illini men’s basketball team has six newcomers this year. Two are walk-ons Cameron Liss and Alex Austin. Two are Michael Finke and Aaron Cosby, already profiled in the Illini Report “newcomer” series.
At some point, you’ll get a humorous glimpse at Liss and Austin. It probably won’t get a lot of hits. Web traffic works like this
Perhaps Leron Black is most intriguing to Illini fans, because we know so little about him. But the newcomer most likely to determine the outcome of the 2014-15 season is tiny, quiet Ahmad Starks.
Asking about Starks, of the guys who’ve played with him for over a year, reveals some things we didn’t know. For one, he drives fearlessly at and over guys twice his height. He dunks. He has a knack for theatrical shots that somehow go in the basket. He rebounds.
Most interestingly, he’s considered to be a ball-handler and distributor. Contrast this opinion with conventional wisdom that Starks is primarily a shooter, and you see just how little the typical fan understands what happens inside John Groce’s program.
In fact, the perception of Starks as a typical point guard has so permeated the inner Illini mindset that Alex Austin answered the tell me something most people don’t know about Ahmad Starks question by saying that Starks is a really good shooter, whereas most people probably think of him primarily as a ball-handler.
As the Weber administration collapsed, the average RSCI of its unofficial visitors plummeted, as did their height. Finke was associated, in the minds of observers, with his Division III-bound cohort.
Bleacher seats once reserved for Rivals-rated blue chippers were available for anyone willing to sit through two hours of Weber-flavored torture, and the Finke family was conveniently located, and able to fill between three and six empty spots.
The rail-thin, 6-foot-7 white kid reminded older Illini fans of an earlier time, when recruiting bottomed out after a heyday of unprecedented success. Juwan Howard and Michael Finley left the state for greener pastures, and we got Tommy Michael and T.J. Wheeler instead. Nice guys, sure. But after a steady diet of Efrem Winterses, Ken Normans and Nelison “Nick” Andersons; the small town downstaters simply didn’t fulfill Illini fans’ hunger for top cosmopolitan athletes.
Fast-forward 32 months, and we find that Michael Finke is not that lanky kid. He’s enormous. He’s grown upwards, and outwards. He looks like a Big Ten power-forward. As of this morning, he says he weighs 225. That means he’s put on five pounds just since the printing of Illinois’ media guide. (Credit Laura Finke and Chelsea Burkart for the meals, and Mike Basgier for the strength training.)
But what about his game? Does he have the requisite quickness, and mental toughness, to play at this level?
I learned something interesting about Michael Finke during my playful Media Day interviews. Michael Finke has some unknown, possibly unexpected qualities. I tried to avoid expectations when jotting down my questions. They were simply intended to get the guys talking.
I knew that Michael is interested in things other than sports. (His girlfriend Artemis brought a dog-earred copy of Jane Eyre to a game last year. ) I knew that Michael Finke is a kind person. So I asked about that. Nice guys finish last, right?
I thought it was interesting that Illini guards all said Finke is, indeed, one of the nicest people they’ve ever met. But the guys who play the 4 and 5 positions — that is, the guys with whom Finke is competing for playing time, and battling in daily scrimmages — spoke of an edgy side, a competitive fire. I heard echoes of last year’s Word Association video. Could it be that Michael Finke “plays angry?”
Austin Colbert praised Finke’s foot-work. “When he gets in the post, it’s hard for people to stay in front of him. He uses his pivot feet and gets off a lot of shots you wouldn’t think he’d be able to.”
Mike LaTulip says Finke is an excellent passer. Jaylon Tate says Finke is more athletic than people think. Malcolm Hill calls him “Ekey 2.0” but adds that Jon Ekey was a freakish athlete, whereas Finke’s game (and his own) takes place closer to the ground.
It wasn’t so long ago that people assumed Finke would redshirt, to add weight and learn the game while growing into his body. That line of dialog has disappeared. So far, it hasn’t been replaced with speculation about Finke’s early entry into the NBA Draft. But remember, Finke hasn’t yet played a game at Illinois.
Last week, after Jalen Coleman tweeted his commitment to study at the University of Illinois, we learned a few things about him. For one, his name: It’s Jalen Coleman-Lands. Piankhi Lands is Jalen’s father. Dionne Coleman is Jalen’s mother. They live together in Indianapolis. Also, they are married.
On the other hand, it’s important to know — as Illini Nation sweats out Jawun Evans’s college choice, scheduled for Wednesday — whether Coleman-Lands can play point-guard.
Heirman points out that anybody playing in Illinois’ offense better be capable of handling the ball.
Here’s the audio. The text is below.
People in Illinois are thinking he might be playing point guard. Is that the case?
Ultimately what he does best is make shots, and he does that at a very elite level. He’s got good ball skill, and he works hard on that position. I think he’d ultimately like to make that transition. It’s going to be an evolution for him, though. It’s not going to happen overnight.
He’s going to go through some growing pains of transitioning to that position. I think it’s still a little ways out. You know, I think he’s still going to be productive, just with his shot-making abilities.
What position is he going to play for you this year?
He’s a combo. I think the same thing for him; I don’t think he gets wrapped up in the title, you know? I think he’s a guard that’s going to affect the game in a lot of different ways.
So he’ll play a little point, or play a little two (shooting guard), but more than anything, he’s a guard for us.
Do you know anything about how his position in college was sold to him? Because, you know, Illinois fans are still looking at adding another point guard, possibly, and then some people think he’s “the one.” Do you have any idea how that was sold?
I think the vision is kind of similar to what I said. I think they see him as a guard more than anything, too. Regardless, in your offense,primarily ball-screen offense, you’re still having to make plays. You’re playing a lot of point guard even if you’re on the wing. You’re having to read and react to defenses.
And I think the hope is that, ideally, he can transition there full-time at some point in his career. When that is is kind of predicated on him working at it, and studying the game, picking it up that way.
Can you tell me about the recruiting process and how much time you spent around the Illini coaching staff?
I got to know those guys pretty well, throughout the process. It’s a boarding school. He’s here pretty much year-round, with the exception of a couple of months in the summer.
They were frequent visitors up here, and they are one of the hardest if not the hardest working staff in the country — and we get to see quite a few staffs, with our roster.
So, they put a lot of time and effort into him, and respected the process, and how he wanted the process to go. I think that’s what paid off for them.
Was it mostly Jamall (Walker)? Did Dustin (Ford) and Paris Parham ever some by?
Yeah, it was mainly Jamall. Dustin came up here one time. It was mainly Jamall and Coach Groce.