The Illinois men’s basketball team hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since they entered as a No. 7 seed in 2013. With a new coach in Brad Underwood, as well as the loss of one of its best players in program history in Malcolm Hill, the learning curve doesn’t make a hopeful tournament bid any easier.
And after three Big Ten games and the entire non-conference slate, the training wheels are definitely still on for a growing Fighting Illini team. They toppled Missouri in St. Louis, and have taken Northwestern and Maryland into overtime, but to no avail. On the other hand, they were put away swiftly by lower-ranked teams such as UNLV and New Mexico State.
Illinois (0-3 Big Ten, 10-6 overall) will enter Crisler Center on Saturday off an uninspiring — but expected — 77-67 defeat at the hands of Minnesota Wednesday night. Praise and blame during its up-and-down season has fallen upon a carousel of different players. One of them is redshirt junior forward Michael Finke, who is averaging 11.1 points and 5.7 rebounds per game — a dramatic improvement from only a season ago, when he posted 6.9 points per game. The Daily sat down with Finke at Big Ten Media Day in October to discuss a changing dynamic with a new coach, putting Illinois back into conference relevancy and more.
The Michigan Daily: Having a new coach in the mix, how have you seen the demeanor of the team change?
Michael Finke: The intensity has changed a bunch. Just offensively and defensively, he wants us to be much more aggressive. Attack on defense, (he) really doesn’t want your man to catch the ball, trying to stop offenses from running their normal plays. It sounds easier than it really is. Honestly, it’s been tough, but we’re grasping it well. Offensively, it’s a whole different system I’ve never been used to. Really spreading the floor, moving the ball.
TMD: In the few months Coach Underwood has been here, Illinois has one of the top recruiting classes in the Big Ten for next season. What has he and the team done to start bringing Illinois back into the conference spotlight?
MF: Recruits talk to him and they see how good of a guy he is, first and foremost. Just how tough he wants the players to be here, and for our identity to be toughness. He wants a tougher team. For recruits to see that going forward, and to see that he’s won everywhere he has been is important.
TMD: The team lost leading scorer Malcolm Hill to graduation, so how do you make up for this missing production?
MF: Obviously Malcolm is a great player. Losing a leading scorer in Illinois history, it’s big. But honestly in the system that Coach Underwood brings to the table, there are so many options and so many threats. We have counters and counters, and counters for those. So many plays that we have really open the floor, get the ball out of people’s hands and moving. One night, (redshirt junior forward Leron Black) might be scoring 20, the next night Mark Smith will.
TMD: Has anyone taken it upon themselves to be the team’s new on- and off-court leader?
MF: A lot of people on our team are stepping up. (Leron and I) are taking leadership roles. The freshmen have come in working super hard and doing their piece to make this team better, too.
TMD: As an upperclassmen, what do you expect for yourself individually?
MF: I’ve been working really hard this offseason, being in the gym as much as I can looking for an improvement. So I think I’ve become more of an offensive threat than I’ve been in the past, especially in this new system.