CHAMPAIGN — Although just 21 years old, by today’s definition Michael Finke is an old man of the Illini basketball kingdom.
Only he and teammate Leron Black can say they’re beginning their fourth year with the program. Both are redshirt juniors and their experience in orange and blue trumps the team’s only senior, graduate transfer Mark Alstork.
Alstork, although 22 years old, is still a newcomer.
After a recent workout — which always ends in breathless gasps and pools of sweat — Finke appeared with ice bags strapped to each knee, his size 17 basketball shoes anchoring him low and his neatly shaped “man bun” nicely coiffed atop his head.
So much of the Illini basketball conversation is about new coach Brad Underwood and the six-pack of scholarship newcomers who will populate his first roster that it’s easy to overlook the impact someone like Finke is expected to make. But Underwood is expecting a lot from the team’s tallest player (6-foot-10) and most versatile big man.
Maybe the way last season ended makes it too easy to overlook Finke.
As the season crumpled around former coach John Groce, dismissed on March 11 and now the head man at Akron, assistant coach Jamall Walker led the Illini through three games in the NIT.
The team played hard for Walker, a credit to him given a situation that was both awkward and disorienting for the players. But Finke was left on the outside looking in, forced to miss all of the NIT action with a stress fracture in his right foot.
He wore a boot through much of the off-season, taking precautions so he’d be ready for the grind that was to come. The good news is that when the foot injury is mentioned now, Finke acts like he forgot all about it.
“Honestly, I didn’t even remember it until you said that,” he said with convincing surprise this week. “That’s all in the past. I feel great.”
What’s apparent before the official start of team practices on Sept. 30 is that Finke has made an early impression with his ability to keep up with the increased pace of Underwood’s fast-moving style. He is proving to be a big man who glides quickly from end to end and deftly slides from inside to outside, depending on what is needed.
“When the coaching change first happened, you wonder how you’ll fit in with the new coach,” Finke said. “But I looked at some stuff on YouTube and felt like I could play in his system.
“Then he got here and it didn’t take long to understand I would have a role. But the real information I got is from his son, Tyler, who’s a walk-on with us. He’s actually moved in with me so he’s one of my roommates.”
Finke, it turns out, has gone straight to the family tree for his intel.
“We’ve become really close,” Finke said. “Tyler is honestly one of my best friends.”
Tyler Underwood has told Finke tales from the days when his father was a college assistant coach, when he was the head man at Stephen F. Austin, and from his one season directing Oklahoma State.
If Tyler is passing along the truth, he had to warn Finke that conditioning will be both difficult and essential.
Finke has learned it first-hand. Superb conditioning is the gospel according to Brad Underwood.
“He tells us every day that we’ll be the best conditioned team in the country,” Finke said. “That’s the big thing for us right now, getting into shape before we start team practices.”
Finke can’t wait. He’s gotten only a sniff of how Underwood’s system will work full-tilt, five-on-five. But more than most fans, he understands the basics of how it will work.
Surely everyone has heard that Underwood’s Oklahoma State team led the nation in points scored within the first seven seconds of the shot clock.
That does not mean Illinois will fast break on every possession. It does not mean Illinois will never score late in the shot clock. But Finke knows it does mean that he and every other player has to be ready to sprint at a snap of a finger.
“When there’s a rebound, we grab it and we run,” he said. “When there’s a turnover, we run. But sometimes we have to play in the half-court and we set up and play his spread offense. We’re learning more and more about that.”
Underwood has been watching his team closely, sometimes silently, taking mental notes on who competes naturally and fiercely. He’s looking for traits of leadership and as one of the more experienced players, Finke will be called on there.
He’s also looking for daily improvement, which he has seen from impressive freshman guard Mark Smith.
Finke’s versatility is something Underwood loves. It allows him to create mismatches and force opponents to account for the big man when he moves away from the basket.
And Finke seems to enjoy Underwood’s “positionless basketball,” where every player regardless of size is expected to handle the ball, pass the ball and shoot the ball. And, of course, run.
“If someone asks, I tell them I’m a 4-5,” he said, the numbers traditionally assigned to power forward and center. “But I could be anywhere.
“Sometimes I’m in the pinch post, but sometimes I’ll move to the perimeter and maybe Mark Smith will be in the pinch post.”
Until now, Underwood has left the dirty work of conditioning to his strength and conditioning coach, Adam Fletcher. “He does a remarkable job,” the coach said.
Finke, who has been run to exhaustion by Fletcher many times, smiles faintly when asked about his relationship with the whip-cracking conditioning guru.
“It’s a love-hate relationship,” Finke said. “But, oh, yeah, I’m in the best condition of my life.”
Finke started the first eight games last season before settling into a bench role with Groce. But it should be remembered that he shot 44.9 percent from 3-point distance during Big Ten play, eighth-best in the league.
Now healthy and running tirelessly, he’s about to find out exactly how he fits into Underwood’s still-mysterious system.
As for his man-bun, which draws so many comments it practically needs its own social media page, Finke will have it groomed and properly grown for the season opener.
And no, just because he’s a St. Louis Cardinals fan and pitcher Carlos Martinez recently died his hair pink, he’s not going that route.
“I think my mom and my girlfriend would kill me,” he said. “I’m just going to keep it going. Maybe I’ll throw in a headband every now and then.”