Illini Freshman Kendrick Nunn earned Big Ten Freshman of the week honors, as announced by the Big Ten office on Monday morning, but that isn't the only reason for optimism concerning the Illini future. The play of the Illinois commitments should also have Illinois fans excited about the future.
Class of 2014
As the season has progressed, one thing should be clear. The fall of Leron Black from a top 20 player to a top 50 player was more about injury and playing out of position than his abilities. The 6-foot-7 forward has led Memphis (Tenn.) White Station to a 29-1 mark and the semi-finals of the Region 8 AAA on Tuesday, Feb. 25 at home.
Although there have been games where he has deferred somewhat to his teammates, Black has been outstanding the late part of the season. Black averages 22.3 points, 15 rebounds, and 3 blocked shots over his last six games, as the Spartans clinched the SCIAA championship and the Region 16 AAA championship. They are now primed for a run through the Tennessee state playoffs.
Should White Station win Tuesday, they will likely face Hamilton, a team they have already beaten three times in closely contested game, but they have already earned a Sectional berth. (champions and runners up both advance from each region).
Black was also named as a finalist for the Tennessee Mr. Basketball Award, one of 15 players who remain in contention.
6-foot-10 forward Michael Finke is also having a tremendous senior season. The Illinois signee leads his team into the IHSA playoffs next week. Finke helped his team to the Big 12 Conference Championship and a 20-4 overall record, averaging 19.6 point and 9.4 rebounds per fame.
"I think we are playing really well as a team right now, finding the open man, and hitting our shots" Finke said. "We have been getting some big W's, so it's been really fun."
Centennial plays two more regular season games - at Kankakee on Tuesday and home on Friday night for senior night against Decatur Eisenhower. Then the playoffs begin the following week, with the Chargers holding the No. 1 seed in the Champaign Central Regional, in what is a loaded 3A Sectional complex. The state's No. 1 team Springfield Lanphier and No. 3 Lincoln are also in the Sectional as top seeds, as well Chatham Glenwood featuring Texas A&M commitment Peyton Allen.
Throughout the season, Finke has continued to showcase more and more of his game, especially on the glass and on the defensive end as a shot blocker. He's always had the skills - tremendous passer and an excellent shooter, and he handles the ball very well for someone his size. However, Finke's willingness to rebound the ball outside of his area have not only made him a more complete player, but also has helped the Chargers to big wins over No.8 Normal U-High and Champaign Central.
"I've been trying to get better on the post game and taking advantage of mismatches," Finke said. I'm trying to be more consistent on my outside shooting, and hitting the boards hard. All in all I'm having a pretty good season."
Class of 2015
While the players that will play the following year get the top billing, the performances of late by 2015 commitment Aaron Jordan have also earned attention. Whether it was 29 points on 16 shots a week ago, or 19 points in a big win over Oswego, Jordan is scoring the ball at a high level and with consistency. Perhaps the most impressive thing is that he isn't just scoring with jump shots - he's showing the ability to score from all 3 levels.
Jordan said he is getting points by creating shots, and also getting good looks from executing the offense.
"It's a little bit of both," Jordan said. "My coach gets me open, I get open and I create things. So it's a mixture. We host our regionals, so we get that hope court advantage. We are hoping to win out and get some momentum going."
Jordan can certainly shoot it, but his ability to handle the ball and attack the rim make him a much more complete player. Due to the fact that he is often asked to do much more in his high school offense, Jordan is more than just your typical spot up shooter. He can run and shoot, shoot off the bounce and even has a mid-range game.
With Jordan doing the scoring, fellow 2015 commitment D.J. Williams is looking towards being a facilitator down the line. The 6-foot-7 wing runs the point at Chicago Simeon as they head into the post season. Although he hasn't put up the gaudy numbers that the other future Illini have, Williams is a huge part of the Simeon squad. He has the occasional highlight reel play, followed by stretches where he defers to teammates and isn't as assertive.
Williams has been very good in national showcase games and his potential is obvious, so his rankings haven't slid. Look for Williams and Simeon to be right in the thick of the 4A title chase in one of the best Sectionals in history. The four-time defending champs will have to go through fellow Chicago powers Curie, Whitney Young, and St. Rita just to get a chance to defend their title down state in Peoria.