NEWS

Keller hopes to earn more playing time in Illini's last exhibition

John Supinie

The only scholarship senior on a team boosted by four talented freshmen, Illinois forward Dominique Keller often finds himself surrounded by questions about the rookies.

"I'm happy for the freshmen, and they bring a lot of attention to the program,'' Keller said.

"But sometimes it does seem disrespectful. I don't let it bother me. I tell those guys to keep their head and stay focused. I hang out with those guys, and it's extra motivation for me. I sometimes play with a chip on my shoulder.''

Heading into his final season, the native of Port Arthur, Texas, would prefer to start and finish his career as the star. Who wouldn't? But he's also realistic. When Illinois hosts Division II Quincy in the final exhibition game Sunday, Keller knows it's more about finishing than starting.

If the starting lineup already has its key ingredients – junior point guard Demetri McCamey for scoring and ballhandling, freshman guard D.J. Richardson for defense, and juniors Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale inside – it leaves one starting position open.

Shooting guards Alex Legion and freshman Brandon Paul, who are heating up from the 3-point line, remain the most likely options, but Keller also wants to start in his final season. A mobile big man would give coach Bruce Weber some flexibility.

"Whether you start or not, it's what you do when you get in there and who finishes the game,'' Weber said. "He's very active. He was very effective in the first exhibition game. He was active, scoring in a lot of ways, getting a lot of things done.''

In a 95-67 exhibition victory over Division II Missouri Southern last week, Keller scored the Illini's first six points by converting an offensive rebound for a basket, scoring on a dunk and tipping in another missed shot.

"If he can just do all those things, whether he starts or not, he'll play a lot of minutes for us,'' Weber said. "It could be from the four spot, the five or the three, depending how everybody else progresses.''

The 6-foot-7, 230-pound Keller averaged 5.9 points and 2.3 rebounds while playing in all 34 games off the bench last season, his first after ranking second in NJCAA by averaging 25.5 points at Lee College.

"I was used to having the ball in my hands,'' said Keller. At Illinois, his responsibilities start with defense and rebounding.

The dog days have hit the Illini, who endure 3-hour practice sessions. Legion was stretched out on a couch in the locker room suffering from flu symptoms Thursday. Paul had five stitches over his left eye after taking an elbow from Tisdale. Paul and Davis had wrists taped earlier in the week.

Freshman guard Joseph Bertrand's status for the game and long-term prognosis remained uncertain because of continual swelling in his knee. Bertrand already had the knee drained several times, Weber said, after Bertrand underwent cartilage surgery in September.

"Now it's trying to see the light at the end of the tunnel, where you're going to get to the first game and the regular season,'' Weber said. "It's so key, especially for a team like us. We have a lot of older guys changing roles, a lot of young guys trying to get into the mix. This practice time is important for setting our rotation.''

Redshirt freshman center Stan Simpson will play if he finishes the week strong, Weber said, after missing the first exhibition because of academic issues. Junior guard Jeff Jordan may also play some minutes after sitting out the first exhibition after rejoining the program in October.

John Supinie can be reached atJohnsupinie@aol.com.

Illinois vs. Quincy

What: Final exhibition game for Illinois

When: 4 p.m. Sunday

Where: Assembly Hall

TV: None

Radio: Illini Sports Network (where available)

Notes: The game can be viewed online at www.bigtennetwork.com for $2.99. . . In a poll of league coaches, Quincy was picked to finish first in the Great Lakes Valley Conference north division ahead of Lewis, Saint Joseph's, Wisconsin-Parkside and Illinois-Springfield. Quincy finished 16-12 overall last season. Quincy returns four starters, including junior guard Josh Edmonds. The Peoria Notre Dame graduate averaged 9.3 points a game last season after scoring about 11 points a game over the last two months of the season. Quincy plays an exhibition game Friday at Notre Dame.