Keller Fills A Need With Illini Basketball

Making an adjustment to college life and major college basketball is difficult for anyone. It is even more difficult when you have travelled far from home just before a hurricane hits. But despite the problems, Dominique Keller is adapting rapidly life in Champaign and believes he can help the Illini win.

Hurricane Ike hit Dominique Keller's home of Port Arthur, Texas, this summer, shortly after he moved to Illinois. He downplayed the damage, but it was significant.

"It was a problem. Obviously, when Hurricane Rita hit a couple years ago, and when Ike hit, it always messes up our city. It wasn't as bad as a couple years ago, but it was bad.

"My grandparents' house got burned down, and my mom's house got messed up a little bit. But they're ok now, getting things situated. Things will be back to normal in a couple months."

Keller admitted to some homesickness.

"A little, but I got to go back home a couple times, so I'm not really homesick any more."

The Illinois basketball team had an obvious need for rebounding and inside defense last season, and Dominique saw himself fitting in perfectly while on his official visit.

"I think I wanted to play for Illinois when I came on my visit. I made up my mind when I saw them lose to Michigan State that night. I talked to Coach Weber and Coach Howard, and I saw what they were talking about with the team. I just felt I could have helped them win that night, so I just couldn't sleep."

Coach Bruce Weber had specific needs for his one scholarship opening, and his description appealed to the hard-working Keller.

"He said we needed someone physical who could rebound, someone who could run the floor, someone who could defend people, and someone who could do the different things he asked on a given night. He never said he didn't want me to score. He just told me specifically to rebound and play defense.

"And that's what any coach would ask. I think with the past juco players, they tried to fight the system and didn't want to listen. But he's the coach, and he's been coaching more than 15-20 years, so obviously he knows what he's talking about. And I'm gonna listen."

While many young players want to be the star and stay in the limelight, good teams need glue guys who will do the dirty work without complaint. The latter is Dominique's way.

"I think it would be hard for any other guy, but it wasn't hard for me because it's the same thing my junior college coach said when he recruited me. I averaged over 25 points a game last year. What people don't know about that is, I wasn't the first option on the team.

"He wanted me to play defense, rebound and be physical. Ask anybody who saw me play, I didn't have set plays to get the ball. I would run the floor and get tip dunks, get it off the run. So basically it will be the same thing over again."

The 6'-7", 220 pounder doesn't lack for confidence. He is willing to bang against 7 footers in the post if needed.

"I can play them all. I guard (Mike) Tisdale more than anybody in here. I can see myself starting off at the four, but when Tisdale needs a break or something, coaches told me I could play center because I can get down there and bang with the rest of them."

Keller showed definite leadership skills with his Lee Junior College team. While he is not yet in the position to take on a leadership role at Illinois, it is just a matter of time.

"I've been a leader my whole life. I've never been a follower. Before you can be an actual leader on the team, you have to be a follower.

"When I first came here, I didn't know anything that was going on, so I just followed the guys who had been here. I'm still following to this today. To be a leader, you have to lead by example. Everybody's not a vocal leader, but I lead by example."

Weber is eager to help turn a rough stone into a polished jewel.

"If you watched any of the scrimmage (at Memorial Stadium), if I was a fan I'd be excited about Dominique. His athleticism. He continues to improve. His footwork, his endurance. He's a good listener. He's learning, he's developing. Dominique is a happy-go-lucky kid with a pleasant personality. He seems to fit in with everyone.

"He is unorthodox, but he has a knack to get the ball and get it in the hoop. So I hope that continues and he has some good games."

Dominique Keller brings unique gifts to the Illini team, and he will help make them better once he adjusts and relaxes with his new teammates and coaches.

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