Illinois Basketball: The Illini’s path to success goes through Michael Finke

CHAMPAIGN, IL - NOVEMBER 22: Michael Finke
CHAMPAIGN, IL - NOVEMBER 22: Michael Finke /

Everybody has their reasons for what ails the Illinois basketball team and here is mine.

Actually, I think I have identified the problem and the solution all neatly bundled in one.  Or should I say, in 43?  Fair or not, I am putting this season’s woes to-date on the red-shirt junior, Michael Finke.  No, Finke didn’t screw up an inbounds play.  No, he didn’t miss critical free throws down the stretch.  Nor did he turn the ball over at the end of a game, or make a bone-headed foul.

Bear with me.

Many people like to point out that the Illini could be 13-0 based on how they lost the five games in the L column. But of course just like a “W is a “W” an “L” is an “L.”  Kenpom will take into account the fact that four of the losses were road games of one sort or the other, which is probably the only reason he has them currently ranked at No. 93.  Of course, the reality is two of those losses were in Chicago.  That should never be considered an away game for Illinois in any sense of the word unless they are playing on a school’s campus.

Alas, the Illini aren’t 13-0.  Rather Illinois is 8-5 heading to St. Louis this weekend to take on a very good Missouri squad sitting at 10-2 and ranked No. 50 by kenpom.  The Tigers record is not quite as good as it sounds, with only one win over a current kenpom top 50 (St. Johns, coming in at No. 49).  But the Illini are 0-5 against top 100 teams.  The Tigers are 3-2 in that category (with losses to Utah and West Virginia).

It’s pretty clear at this point that the Illini need an upperclassman not just to be a leader but to be a savior of sorts, ala Malcolm Hill, if they are going to win these close games against top 100 level competition.  Granted, Finke is never going to be Hill, per se.  However, he needs to be the guy the Illini can rely on game in and game out to show up and put points on the board.  Instead, his offense has practically disappeared in big games.

In the five losses, Finke has only averaged 5.8 points per game.  This compared to his season average of 11.8.  And in the eight games, the Illini have won, Finke averaged 14.4 points.

Unquestionably, Finke hasn’t found his three-point stroke yet this year.  He is shooting about 35-percent on 18-of-52 attempted.  However, in the five losses, it is so much worse.  He has only made 3-of-16 in this category in those five games, putting him at about 19-percent.  That means he is shooting almost 42-percent in the eight wins.

Generally speaking, Finke’s overall field goal percentage has been good.  He is shooting almost 53-percent on 60-of-114 shots attempted.  But, once again, these numbers plummet in the losses.  He shot 12-of-34, which is good for about 35-percent in those games.  In the Wake Forest and Northwestern losses, Finke only made six field goal attempts and only four attempts from beyond the arc.

The only game Finke performed at the level he should be at in every game was against UNLV.  There, he scored 12 points making 5-of-11 field goals and draining two three-pointers on six attempts.  He also grabbed seven rebounds in that game (a category he is doing quite well in overall, including in the losses).  But take this performance out of the mix of the five losses, and you can imagine, without doing the math, what happens to his numbers.

I fully realize that the Illini still could have won many – or maybe even all – of these games if certain other players had stepped up or not made foolish errors.  However, I think it is pretty hard to quarrel with the fact that if Finke had scored 2 or 3 more buckets in each of these games – which isn’t too much to ask of the red-shirt junior – the Illini would not have been in a position where one or two mistakes cost them the game.  Certainly, they would’ve beaten Northwestern, Maryland, and New Mexico State.  That’d be 11-2, for those who enjoy the fantasy of “what if.”

So, this is what I mean by Finke’s disappearing act.  In the games against sub-par competition he shines.  In the games against the top 100 he practically disappears.  This cannot happen anymore. Of course, good teams know the threat Finke poses to them, and they guard him accordingly.  But that is something he needs to fight through.  Finke must find a way to score, plain and simple.  I don’t want him to play hero ball by any means.  But two points per game (Wake Forest and Northwestern), or five points per game (New Mexico State) won’t get the job done.  Even his eight points at Maryland is below what he is capable of, and what the Illini need from him.

Next: Top 5 recruiting targets for the Illini

The Illini need Finke to score double-digits almost every game if they are going to have any chance of success against Missouri and the entire Big Ten.  Finke needs to find a way to channel his inner Malcolm Hill.  No one expects 30 points per game – or in any one game, for that matter.  Hell, no one expects 20, but if Finke can get to double-digits in every game, the Illini are going to be alive in March.  On the other hand, if he disappears on the offensive end going forward, then he also kills the Illini’s hopes for meaningful March basketball.