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Could Mike Thorne's return vault Illinois Basketball towards the top of the Big Ten?

Good morning. Welcome to the Orange Minute for Thursday, July 21.

Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

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!

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