So Illinois made news recently. Did the program get a season-altering win? Nope. Is the State Farm Center ready to be re-opened? Yes, but not what I was getting at. Did another player get injured? Ding, ding ding. You guessed it.
Just when Illinois seemed healthy and ready to compete with its full lineup, Mike Thorne Jr. reportedly tore his meniscus after the first half of the Illinois' most recent contest against Iowa State. Thorne Jr. left the floor limping and was not seen in the second half. Illinois fans didn't make too much of the situation as nothing looked that dire, and there still has not been an official statement from John Groce regarding the injury. That being said, multiple reports have cited that Thorne Jr. has torn his meniscus and will likely miss the remainder of the season. Ouch.
In case you thought that Illinois was going to overcome early injuries, this crucial loss is here to remind you that you're wrong. Illinois has now been victim to seven different injuries since the beginning of the year. None have been more detrimental than losing point guard Tracy Abrams for a second consecutive season and now the loss of Illinois' star big man.
Though we could dwell on the horrid luck that the Fighting Illini have had thus far, it's essentially "next man up" once more. Illinois will need to find a way to replace the graduate transfer Thorne Jr. whose been averaging 13.4 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. Here's a closer look at what this injury means to the Illini.
1. Maverick Morgan Will Be Asked to Do Even More
Maverick Morgan has been quite possibly the biggest surprise for the Fighting Illini this season. After a tough sophomore year where he averaged just about as many fouls per game as rebounds, Morgan has provided enormous upside to a team that lacks depth in the post. The junior Morgan has posted a steady 6.4 points per game and also leads the team in field goal percentage at 67.7%. He recently recorded a career high 12 points in the Emerald Coast Classic against the UAB Blazers.
Morgan has been the perfect bench weapon for Illinois this year, but now he'll likely start at center. Maverick Morgan has been efficient thus far, but there still remains much speculation as to how well he'll contribute as a starter. His 2.4 rebounds per game will need to increase if Illinois wants any shot at keeping up with rebounding powerhouses in the Big Ten like Michigan State. Morgan will likely share minutes with Michael Finke at the five spot for the remainder of the season. The two forwards will need to step up in absence of Thorne Jr. in the paint and deliver more points, more rebounds, and more consistent play on defense.
2. This Could be the End of Mike Thorne Jr's Fighting Illini Career
Unfortunately for Mike Thorne Jr, he has already used a redshirt season for non-medical purposes back when he was at Charlotte. This means that he would not be able to apply for a second redshirt season because the first one was not for medical purposes. Thorne Jr. may have therefore seen his last time on the court with the Fighting Illini. There still may be a chance that he could see a few games at the end of the year, but until then, his injury will keep him sidelined.
It must be very frustrating for Mike Thorne Jr. to have to sit out his final year of eligibility. Heck, just ask Tracy Abrams. But the fact that Thorne Jr. would not be able to stick around for a sixth year is what hurts the most. The senior came to Illinois in hopes of leading the team to an NCAA Tournament, but now they'll struggle immensely without his presence. Even worse, Illinois doesn't have a big man to replace Thorne Jr. in the class of 2016. If Morgan and Finke don't provide consistent play at the five spot, then Illinois will desperately be searching the transfer market yet again.
3. Illinois Loses Leadership Without Mike Thorne Jr. On the Floor
Without Mike Thorne Jr, Illinois now has only one senior on scholarship playing at the moment: Khalid Lewis. Illinois is a young team that lacks experience playing together. Freshmen are still trying to understand the system, especially in a frontcourt that has been torn and tattered by injuries. The loss of Thorne Jr. really hurts in this area. He is one of the Fighting Illini players who knows exactly what to do with the ball when he gets it in the post. Having played four years of college basketball, Thorne Jr. has a lot of experience playing high-level basketball games, and without this experienced weapon on the floor, Illinois' youth is bound to rear its ugly head once more. What bad news for Thorne Jr. and the Fighting Illini basketball program. Illinois will surely miss his presence on the floor.