CHAMPAIGN - Michael Finke didn't really want to redshirt. He's a competitor and had dreamed of suiting up for Illinois for most of his 18 years.
John Groce struggled with whether he really wanted to redshirt Finke. The Illinois coach thought he could use the 6-foot-9 forward's offensive skillset in a post rotation that had weakened due to Darius Paul's yearlong suspension.
While Groce evaluated Finke last fall, media and fans were already deliberating whether to redshirt Finke -- to the dismay of Groce and others around Finke.
"I think it was kind of unfair because I wanted to give him a chance to get through the exhibition scrimmage, get several practices under his belt," Groce said. "Last year, obviously we didn’t have a European trip for games. I wanted to really evaluate, and he got better so fast that it ended up becoming for me a decision that wasn’t like cut and dry. It was hard."
Groce had to decide whether to make a small investment in the Illini's present -- and if Finke would play 10-15 minutes per game -- or make a long-term investment for Finke and the Illini program. He chose the latter.
“I didn’t want to, for lack of a better word, waste the year," Groce said. "Some guys get chances to replace an 18-year-old year with a 23-year-old year after three or four years of experience. I thought that was best for him and for us and for Illinois. But it took me some time to come to that. ...Now, it’s really paid off.”
Finke agrees. Though he admits that he struggled with the helpless feeling of watching his teammates lose their last regular season game and lone Big Ten Tournament game, both in blowout fashion, preventing Illinois from earning an NCAA Tournament bid.
“I’d say the whole year had its ups and downs for sure,” Finke said. “But I’d say looking back on it, it was the best year for me. I was able to put on so much more strength and being able to work with James every day and get as good as I could. I wouldn’t be where I am without that one year.”
Finke arrived to Illinois as a lanky, 210-pound stretch forward who didn't know the Illini system. He's now a wide-shouldered, 230-pound stretch forward/center with a year's worth of reps in the Illini system -- and he still has four years of eligibility remaining.
“When I came in here I was 210, so a 210 lanky dude going against 6-11, 250-260 -- whatever (former Illini center) Nnanna (Egwu) was -- it was tough," Finke said. "But it only made me better. I’m not as strong as (275-pound fifth year transfer center Mike Thorne), but I’m able to battle with him better. I’m used to it a little more.
"I was telling my mom and dad the other day that practice now compared to this time last year, it’s like night and day difference. I just feel more comfortable with it defensively, offensively I’m a better player. I feel better conditioned."
Coaches describe Finke as a plus shooter, dribbler and passer. Finke practiced mostly at the "5", or center, last season but is now practicing more at the "4", or stretch forward, position. He's a key cog in what Groce calls his most versatile team at Illinois.
Finke has improved his strength in the post, is getting more comfortable on offense with his back to the basket and said that he's fine-tuned his footwork. He's working on his weak points: rebounding and defense. But even those traits are much stronger than a year ago.
"Redshirts go one of two ways," Illinois assistant coach Dustin Ford said. "Guys can work hard and get better or guys can sulk around and not get better. Obviously, he’s a guy who works hard. It’s how he’s wired. He’s made big-time strides, not only from the standpoint of his body but on the court. He had a great summer. He’s had a great fall so far. We need him to contribute and do some things for us.”
Finke not only finally plays for the Illini this season, he plays a big role.
Paul was dismissed from the team after he was arrested in France during the team's foreign trip for vandalism and resisting arrest, leaving a void behind Thorne and sophomore starting forward Leron Black. And Black's knee injury -- he just began a monthlong recovery from a torn meniscus in his knee -- has increased Finke's reps even more in practice.
“I know I got to get in there and knock down shots and I got to be a good team defensive player," Finke said. "That’s what they keep telling me. If you can’t play defense here, you can’t play. That’s what I got to do for the most part is hold my own and offensively get out there and do what I can.”
Groce, who said Finke "adds an offensive skillset at 6-9 like a guard," has no regrets holding out Finke, even if as a freshman, Finke may have made the difference in the one game that helped Illinois make the NCAA Tournament.
"I'm excited," Groce said. "He’s an important part of not only this year but our future.”
Finke has no regrets, either.
Given the offseason turmoil on the roster -- due to injuries Paul's dismissal -- the Illini need redshirt freshman Finke now more than they needed freshman Finke last season.
“Last year it was super tough watching them play," Finke said, "knowing they were so close to making the Tournament and wondering ‘What if?’ But I was working hard every day in practice trying to make them all better. Now, it’s my time to go out there, help my team win and do what I can.
“This is what I’ve been dreaming about for my whole life. It’s awesome. Finally, it’s here now. I can’t wait for it.”