- Scott Powers, Reporter
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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Illinois senior Dominique Keller's college basketball career could easily be ending in silence and resentment.
Keller could have decided to continue slacking in practice and remaining angry and frustrated while sitting on the end of the bench during games knowing he had little chance to ever seen the floor again. With that frame of mind, he would have been nothing more than a distraction to coach Bruce Weber.
That was the reality Keller faced as he approached the final games of his career when Illinois began play in the NIT last week. He either had to change or his career would have finished inconsequentially.
Keller opted for something different.
Keller chose to sit down with Weber to talk their differences out. He chose to practice harder. He chose to stay more upbeat on the bench.
For it, he has been rewarded and has again become someone Weber can turn to off the bench.
On Monday against Kent State, Keller played 14 minutes -- the most minutes he's seen in a game since Jan. 23 -- and scored eight points on 4-of-8 shooting to help the Illini advance to Wednesday's NIT quarterfinals.
"I figured out I wasn't doing all the things I needed to do," Keller said. "Maybe I wasn't working hard enough, maybe I wasn't doing all the things they needed me to do. I figured it out about a week ago, and I went and talked to [Weber] and started busting my [butt] in practice every day. I just did everything they said. This last week of my practice they'll tell you I've been going as hard as I could for a while. I tried the hardest I ever did. Coach started playing me [against Kent State], and he said I did a good job, so I'm just going to keep doing it."
DAYTON FLYERS(22-12) vs. ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI (21-14)
When 8:00 p.m.
Where at Assembly Hall, Champaign, Ill.
Radio: WIND (560 AM)
What you need to know: Illinois is one step away from reaching the NIT semifinals and playing in Madison Square Garden. The Illini came out focused in the second half of Monday's quarterfinal game against Kent State and decisively won at home for the first time since early January. Mike Davis and Demetri McCamey were stellar again in the win. The Flyers finished near the middle of the pack in the Atlantic 10 and have been up and down throughout the past few months. They're led by high-flying forward Chris Wright, who averaged team-bests of 13.9 points and 7.1 rebounds. Mickey Perry, a Proviso East grad, and Luke Fabrizius, a former Hersey star, are among Dayton's key bench players.
Scott Powers' prediction: Illinois 74, Dayton 67
A week and a half ago, none of that seemed possible.
Keller's role was limited throughout the last portion of the Big Ten season as Weber found the 6-foot-7 Texas native was too inconsistent. The lack of playing time increasingly grew tougher on Keller, and his frustration reached its peak against Wisconsin in the Big Ten tournament.
Keller had subbed in at the 10:52 mark in the opening half, but he immediately picked up a defensive foul and Weber took him out seconds later. Keller stormed past the coaches to the bench and ignored Weber when Weber sat beside him to explain what he had done wrong. Weber quickly noticed Keller was staring ahead and not looking at the clipboard, and Weber jumped to his feet and left him.
Keller didn't see a second of playing the time the following day against Ohio State, and there was a good chance he wouldn't see another one again.
Shortly after that, Weber and Keller sat down to discuss their problems.
"I had some serious talks with Dominique around the Big Ten Tournament," Weber said. "I told him I haven't quit on him, but he's quit on himself. He had to come with a better attitude to show me he actually he cared, practice hard and stuff like that."
Keller finally realized what was at stake.
"I had to look myself in the mirror and figured out what I really wanted," Keller said. "I lost my focus time to time. I was frustrated. It's my last year. I've been on and off with the minutes. Some games I'm playing 12, some games I'm playing 14. Then recently, I haven't been getting in more than three of four.
"I've just stayed with it. I didn't let it get to me too much. I was like, 'When I get in, I'm going to do the things I'm capable of doing.'"
Following Monday's game, Keller was full of laughter and smiles. He had played, and he had contributed something. Illinois was headed to another round, and there was a greater chance of him closing out his career playing in Madison Square Garden.
"This is big time," Keller said. "This is the NIT. This is not the NCAA Tournament, but it's still a very good tournament. There's still games to be played, and if you lose one game, you're out. For me to get in and help the team win and be a good spark off the bench, it means the world. Because if we lost this game, I'm done. I'm a senior. Just to get in, help the guys, extend the season some more is great."
Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at email@example.com.
Dominique Keller is working hard to contribute for the Illini in the NIT.