USA Today // Brian Spurlock

Illini freshman Michael Finke breaks out of funk

Illini freshman forward Michael Finke returned to his nonconference form with a career day from beyond the arc in the Illini's first-round win over Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament

INDIANAPOLIS - Michael Finke had not made a field goal in three straight games and had missed his previous 10 three-point attempts. One of the Illinois top scorers during nonconference play, Finke had averaged just 2.9 points per game over his previous nine games played (including just five points over the previous four games).

But coaches and teammates encouraged him to just keep shooting.

"I have been getting mad at him lately for passing up shots," Illini junior Malcolm Hill said. "So it was good to see him get it up."

Finke didn't hesitate Wednesday. He let his first three-attempt fly just 26 seconds after checking in off the bench. After it splashed through the net, Finke didn't hesitate the second time Minnesota's bigs gave him space either -- and he sunk that one too.

After that, it was on.

To break out of a shooting funk, sometimes a shooter just needs to see one go through the net -- and playing a bad team doesn't hurt either.

Regardless, Finke finally ended a prolonged funk on Wednesday, swishing a career-high five three-pointers and scoring a team-high 17 points (his Big Ten high) to lead 12th-seeded Illinois (14-18) to an 85-52 win over 13th-seeded Minnesota (8-23) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

"Obviously, it felt good," Finke said. "My teammates, coach (John) Groce, all the coaches, they have been telling me to keep shooting, have confidence in it, and that's just what I had to keep doing. At practice, I have been hitting my shots and getting extra shots up. And then it's just all mental and having confidence in it. So when that first one went in, it felt good and kept making a few more. So I'm glad we could get the win with it all."

During nonconference play, Finke was the breakout contributor the injury-ravaged Illini needed. He averaged 10.3 points per game during 13 nonconference games and was the most efficient scorer on the team, shooting 57.0 percent from the field and 44.4 percent from three.

But during Big Ten regular-season play, Finke averaged 5.1 points and shot 31.3 percent from the field and 28.1 percent from three.

Why the struggles? Several reasons.

First, teams figured out Finke. Nonconference teams didn't have much tape on him. Few knew he was a prolific shooter, so they gave him too much space on the perimeter. Big Ten teams haven't made that mistake, crowding him on the arc and sticking on him after he screens and pops to the wing.

Secondly, Finke -- who added about 15 pounds to his 6-foot-10 frame during his redshirt season last year (he's now about 220 pounds) -- has been disrupted by Big Ten strength, length and athleticism.

Also, Finke suffered a knee contusion during a Jan. 31 home loss to Wisconsin and missed a game three days later at Rutgers. When he returned to action a week later, he didn't start -- he'd started 14 straight games prior -- and struggled immediately. His confidence never bounced back through the end of the regular season. Finke shot 8-for-32 (25.0 percent) in his final eight Big Ten games, including 3-for-17 from three. After scoring in double digits in seven of 13 nonconference games, Finke had just two double-digit scoring performances in 17 conference games -- his last coming on Jan. 16 (11 points vs. Nebraska).

On Wednesday, Finke (6-for-10 FG, 3-for-5 from three) only hesitated on one open three in the flow of the offense -- he tried to pump-fake a defender who had sagged off -- and he led his team in points for just the third time this season.

"Honestly, he took the same shots he has been taking in practice and he has been making a lot of them there," Illini coach John Groce said. "And obviously we know early in season and early in Big Ten play, he made quite a few and was a difference on that in the floor in that regard. I just encourage them to continue to shoot the ball. His teammates did. Our staff has. And then understanding that you don't just put your value in whether you make a shot or not. Contribute on the offensive backboard. Contribute by putting your body into plays, which Michael will do."

Finke's funk is one of many reasons for the Illini's funky season.

With three likely starters out most of the season with injury, the active Illini players' margin for error is microscopic. That's why Kendrick Nunn's recent struggles have hurt and why the Illini have little chance to win against a conference foe if All-Big Ten Second Team member Malcolm Hill doesn't play up to that honor's standard every night.

With Finke's struggles, the four Illini who averaged more than 5.1 points per game during Big Ten play -- Hill, Nunn, Jalen Coleman-Lands (11.5 ppg) and Maverick Morgan (9.5 ppg) -- had to carry even more of the offensive load. But Finke's lack of production and presence -- which usually draws out defenders -- decreased his teammates' openings.

Following Finke's funk-breaking flash on Wednesday, Illinois improved to 7-2 as a double-digit seed in the Big Ten Tournament.

For the Illini to match their surprise 1999 and 2008 runs to the conference championship game and end the season with some good vibes, they'll likely need Wednesday's version of Finke.

"I think it's more mental and everything," Finke said. "My mechanics weren't changing. My shot wasn't changing. I think it was just all mental with it honestly. And, like I was saying earlier, people would tell me to shoot. Everyone had  confidence in me and I just had to have confidence in myself."

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