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Illini basketball

Newcomer: Ahmad Starks

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

  • recruits
  • scandal
  • enormous victories
  • current players
  • losses
  • walk-ons

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.

That’s the mindset inside the program.

Categories
Illini basketball

Newcomer: Michael Finke

Michael Finke’s been around the program so long, Bruce Weber was still the coach when Illinois started recruiting him. It seems weird to think that he’s never played a game for the Illini.

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.