During the Illini vs. Nebraska basketball game Monday night, a Twitter debate raged on about the value Michael Finke had been bringing to the team since Big Ten play began.
More accurately, it was about the value Finke was failing to bring.
A 6-10 junior who early in the season played like he had a found a comfy home in Brad Underwood’s new system, was playing with no comfort at all through five Big Ten games.
In those games, Finke had failed to make a 3-point shot, was averaging 3.0 rebounds and generally looked like a guy whose mojo had gotten up and moved.
In the first half Monday at Nebraska, Finke played just seven minutes and scored one point.
Finke might disagree with this assessment, but he’s a guy who needs a little space, a little time and a little balance to comfortably get off his jump shot. When he gets all three and can shoot an uncontested jumper, he can be a powerful weapon.
But when he’s hurried, crowded or pushed a bit off-balance, the likelihood of making that jump shot sinks. The same can be said about teammate Aaron Jordan. These guys are not quick-draw gunslingers like Steph Curry.
Finke must have been tuned into the Twitter drama and the proud player that he is, he approached the second half with more activity and a determination to force the issue.
Finke scored 15 of his 16 points in the second half, grabbed 10 rebounds overall, made his only two 3-pointers in six conference games and made the courageous 3-point shot and subsequent free throw that seemed to finally haul this desperate Illini basketball team over the hump.
Taking a pass from freshman point guard Trent Frazier, Finke didn’t hesitate. Despite having a defender with his hands up, Finke snapped off a 3-pointer that went straight through the net. And when he was fouled, he turned it into a four-point play and a 63-61 Illini lead with 8.1 seconds to go.
Finke and Underwood shared an emotional chest bump on the sideline that was a toned-down version of a head coach overjoyed that his junior big man had finally delivered. It was a big moment for Finke, who makes any Twitter criticism seems tame compared to the harsh self-analysis he subjects himself to.
“Michael is very hard on himself,” Underwood said.
Trouble is, the hurdle Illinois finally cleared wasn’t quite enough. Nebraska used those eight seconds to hurry the ball into position and James Palmer Jr. drove a stake into Illinois’ heart by making a fairly difficult 3-pointer that beat the buzzer and won the game.
So the Illini add to their growing collection of close-call losses that keep them anchored firmly in the Big Ten basement.
Six Big Ten games, six Big Ten losses. Three have been in overtime. Monday’s game was lost on the final shot. A loss to Minnesota was a two-possession game in the final minutes. The Illini led Michigan by three at the half.
In each case, there were plays to be made, mistakes to be avoided, fouls to back away from, free throws to hit, layups to convert — any of which could have made a difference.
Against Nebraska, two key turnovers by Da’Monte Williams were killers. And one of them seemed like a panic play from a kid who rarely panics.
Underwood sees it from both sides of the fence.
“When you look at it as a coach, you know you’re not too far off,” he said, pointing to the three overtime losses. “And yet it seems sometimes like you’re 100 miles away.
“We missed eight layups by halftime and you can’t get easier shots than layups. We had a horrific shooting night (3 for 18 from 3), which is getting to be a trend on the road. Yet we find a way to get 18 offensive rebounds and find a way to stay in the game.”
No single player right now is emblematic of Underwood’s dilemma than Kipper Nichols.
On the one hand, Nichols brings energy, athleticism and an ability to score. On the other hand, he brings a variety of mistakes, some on the defensive end, others on the offensive side.
It’s hard to imagine a player who turns more layups or breakaway dunks into reckless adventures.
“Playing Kipper (at power forward) has been problematic,” Underwood said. “Other team’s ‘4’ men are just smoking us. And if Leron (Black) gets in foul trouble we can’t play.”
Underwood does not expect the anxiety level to go down. More close games that hinge on key plays or key mistakes are likely coming.
“Sixty or seventy percent of games in the power conferences come down to one or two possessions,” he said. “It comes down to so many intangible things. Leron has an uncontested layup … and he travels. We can’t make those plays.”
The unspoken change in this team’s recent dynamic is the suspension of sophomore guard Te’Jon Lucas. He missed the Iowa game last week and Monday’s game at Nebraska for a violation of team rules.
Underwood hasn’t specified what that is, but here’s what it feels like: It feels selfish.
When a team is struggling and fighting to break through in a parade of very close games, you’d like to think that every player is committed to getting that first conference victory.
Instead, one player has done something that removes him from the mix, that leaves his teammates short-handed and that sends a message that activities outside of basketball are more important than basketball itself.
And it comes at a time when several of the Illini players have been fighting the flu, magnifying any situation that robs the team of more depth.
Lucas didn’t even travel with the team on Monday and may not be there Friday at Wisconsin.
I’d think that incident would inspire the rest of the team to pull together because of Lucas.
The question is, how will he be received when he returns? How much of Underwood’s trust has been lost?
And here’s a better question: Can Michael Finke build on his second-half performance at Nebraska? Illinois clearly needs him to help push this team up the hill.