Fighting Illini basketball received a much needed break back in May when senior center Mike Thorne Jr. was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA. While Thorne nears the end of a long recovery from knee surgery, he's shaping up to be a huge part of what should be a surprisingly strong four-man rotation in Illinois' front court.
Illini Inquirer's Derek Piper recently caught up with the big man to discuss preparations for his final collegiate season, as well as the program's 2016-17 outlook. Thorne also mentioned that he's, "excited to show people how good [Illinois is] going to be."
I briefly mentioned this above, but I think Illinois' front court is really going to turn some heads this season. That may seem strange, too, considering that A) the group had no additions/departures from last year's dreadful campaign and B) most of the team's problems actually stemmed from what was essentially a non-existent inside presence. So what gives? Well having several healthy bodies in the mix is a massive, massive part of the equation.
Here's a very quick look at what I expect the depth chart to eventually look like:
|Point Guard||Shooting Guard||Small Forward||Power Forward||Center|
|Tracy Abrams (SR)||Jalen Coleman-Lands (SO)||Malcolm Hill (SR)||Leron Black (R-SO)||Mike Thorne Jr. (SR)|
|Te'Jon Lucas (FR)||Aaron Jordan (SO)||D.J. Williams (SO)||Michael Finke (SO)||Maverick Morgan (SR)|
|Jaylon Tate (SR)||Kipper Nichols (R-FR)|
Note: there's still one available scholarship, although at this point it may just be awarded to one of the walk-ons at the beginning of the second semester.
Maverick Morgan has developed into a good Big Ten center, and Michael Finke had some fantastic moments as a freshman. So adding healthy versions of Thorne and Leron Black back to the roster should yield a really nice mix of talent and experience. Even when foul trouble inevitably becomes an issue, the presence of Malcolm Hill and D.J. Williams provides John Groce with a safety net.
So while this may just be another case of mid-Summer optimism, I'm definitely looking forward to what Thorne and company have in store. Will it be enough to finally return to the NCAA Tournament? Only time will tell, but I'm leaning towards yes.
July 21, 2016 Poll Question
Assuming the team stays relatively healthy this season, where will Illinois basketball finish in the Big Ten standings? Make sure to cast your vote at the bottom, and let us know what you think in the comments!
Illinois Fighting Illini Links
247Sports updated their 2018 rankings on Wednesday, and a small handful of the program's current targets made their new Top 100. Headlined by three in-state targets, there are eight players that have been given four-star ratings or better.
The university introduced Jones to a packed room at the Illini Union. "I think he is the right person for Illinois, the state, for what's going on here and in Springfield. I think he is ready to move forward with Illinois" said Alex Villanueva, student body Vice President.
Come kick-off the 2016 season at Schoolyard Tavern & Grill in Chicago July 24. Illinois football coach Lovie Smith, Director of Athletics Josh Whitman and host Ryan Baker will be on hand for the Fighting Illini Football Kickoff presented by Coors Light. Admission is FREE!