The McKendree University men's basketball team has jump-started its offseason with the signings of Brandon Book and Nate Michael.
The 6-foot-6 Book, a 2012 graduate of Central High School in Breese, played the last two seasons at Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville. He was the News-Democrat's Class 1A-2A Player of the Year in 2011 and 2012, and led the Cougars to the Class 2A state title in 2012.
Michael, a 6-2 senior at St. Joseph Ogden, is the son of Tom and Shana Michael. Tom Michael played at Carlyle High and Illinois. Nate Michael was a first-team selection to the IBCA all-state team after averaging 18.5 points, four rebounds and three assists per game and making 71 3-pointers.
Book, who averaged 11 points and four rebounds per game for SWIC, said family considerations were front and center when he decided to sign with the Bearcats and play for coach Harry Statham, who is entering his 49th season.
"I want to have my family come watch me play," Book said. "A lot of my aunts and uncles came to a lot of games at SWIC, and that means a lot to me. I like to have my family and friends come watch me play. This is close to home; it's easier for them. That was a big factor, and it will be nice to play for a coach that has the most wins in college basketball history. I can't wait for it."
Statham has 1,077 career victories. The Bearcats, who play in the Division II Great Lakes Valley Conference, were 9-17 overall and 3-15 in the league last season.
Book said he's added strength and toughness during his two seasons at SWIC, which he hopes translates to continued progress on the court.
"Over at SWIC, they wanted to mature me at my game more than anything because coming out of high school, I was a little tentative on a lot of things. I really had to get out of that mode," said the 225-pound Book, the son of Vic and Phyllis Book. "That's what Harry wanted to see --me mature on the court.
"I hit the weightroom more than anything. I was in the gym almost every day shooting. That's one of the best things I do is shoot, so I had to do that more than anything."
Book prides himself in versatility. At Central, he was as dangerous on the perimeter as he was in the blocks. That part of his game hasn't changed.
"I'm such a hard person to guard because I move in and out," said Book, who will major in sports management. "If I have a big guy on me, obviously I'm going to go out and set picks and pop. It's just going to make it hard for the person that's guarding me. I can defend certain positions, too. That just makes it a lot easier for me to get playing time."
Book said Quincy, one of McKendree's GLVC rivals, also made a push to sign him, and it wasn't an easy choice.
"It was a pretty close call," he said. "It was probably one of the tougher decisions I ever had to make, because Quincy is a nice school."
Michael knew McKendree was the place for him immediately after he visited the Lebanon campus and met some of his teammates.
"I was really hoping that it would be a good experience and a good time, and it absolutely was," he said. "It met my expectations and I fell in love with the school. Coach Statham, you can't argue with the success he's had, so it's going to be awesome to play for him."
Michael finished as St. Joseph Ogden's career leader in 3-pointers with 192, and his 1,244 points ranked fifth all-time at the school.
"Nate was a huge part of our team, and had a great four years here," Spartans coach Brian Brooks said. "He is not only a very good player skill-wise, but he has a high basketball IQ and is extremely coachable. He does not take practices off, and he is a very competitive kid that wants to win.
"I think McKendree is a great fit for Nate both athletically and academically, and I think Nate is a great fit for McKendree as well. Nate had an outstanding high-school career, but his best basketball is still ahead of him."
Michael, who is undecided on a major, played shooting guard this season for the Spartans as he assumed a greater scoring role. He was a point guard as a junior when St. Joseph Ogden placed fourth in the Class 2A state tournament.
"I can play both," he said. "I think Coach Statham wants me to play point guard more and be a distributor --make plays for myself and for other teammates. I am glad to do that.
"I think I can come in and play right away, and I think Coach Statham plans to have me play pretty soon. I've got a lot of work to do before that becomes possible. I've got a lot of room to grow, in the weightroom, especially. Of course, my game can get better --dribbling, shooting, passing."
Michael is left-handed, which can help him on the court.
"You don't see many lefties on the court," he said. "Most of them are a little bit more crafty and can do some things with their left hand that not everyone can do. Being left-handed is very unique and I try to take advantage of it."
Nate Michael said Tom Michael was a valuable ally during his playing career and in the months of recruiting.
"It was absolutely huge to have him around," Nate Michael said. "Having someone that's been through it on the biggest stage ... really helped make me successful."