The Illinois Fighting Illini return two members of their front court from last season, and introduce two newcomers for 2015-2016. While the loss of center Nnanna Egwu was undoubtably key, the current big men in Champaign will look to compensate and build upon their progress over the past two seasons. Here are the four guys you'll see taking the court for Illinois this season.
Mike Thorne, Senior
As far as the front court goes, Mike Thorne Jr. is a huge addition for the Illini. A graduate transfer from Charlotte, Thorne is 6-11, 280 lbs and has a killer jump hook. After going 15 and 15 in the most recent Illini scrimmage, he’s proven he can be a huge threat down low. While different than graduated center Nnanna Egwu, Thorne is a much better scorer and rebounder. He also adds a new option for guards, getting the ball into the paint. His presence cannot be overstated.
An interesting thing to watch will to see how he competes with the centers of the Big Ten. Conference USA basketball is a significant step below the best division in the NCAA, and Thorne will need to body up guys like Purdue's A.J. Hammons and Northwestern's Alex Olah. He possesses the natural talent to compete at a high level, and should be a force to be reckoned with this coming year.
Maverick Morgan, Junior
Every Illinois fan knows that Morgan is a liability out on the court. Despite not improving much over his two seasons at U of I, the big guy will still have to gobble up minutes this season due to the fact he's the only other true center on this roster. In the past, he's been able to hide behind Nnanna Egwu and he will be able to do hide a bit behind Thorne this year as well. This doesn't change the fact that he will likely average about the same number of rebounds as fouls per game. Let that sink in. Hopefully for the Illini, he won't be as much of a liability this season with a stronger backcourt on the loose.
Michael Finke, Freshman
Finke, a redshirt freshman, will finally see some regular season playing time come this fall. One of the top players in the state out of Centennial High School in Champaign, Michael is a home grown guy ready to make an immediate impact. Coming out of high school, the scouting report was focused on a 6-10 big men with guard-like abilities. As demonstrated throughout his AAU years and at Centennial, Finke can work the post while distributing and shooting the basketball. His size advantage is a big plus for the Illini who are seeking an interior threat after the loss of Egwu.
While his teammates unanimously dub him one of the nicest guys they have ever met, a competitive edge is will be much needed in order to succeed in the Big Ten. The hope is that Finke can develop into a big 4/stretch 5 with the ability to shoot the basketball. Recruited and offered by Wisconsin, there’s a faint comparison to be made with the game of Frank Kaminsky. That being said, don’t expect Finke’s 220lb frame to be pushing anybody around too much down low. If he can rebound the ball well along with set screens in the high post, there’s a likely chance he could fill the big man void for the Illini in the latter half of the season.
Leron Black, Sophomore
Black’s freshman campaign was of mixed outcomes. The top 50 prospect out of Memphis, Tennessee saw more minutes as the season wore on, logging valuable time and experience out on the court. He was able to finish the season averaging 5.0 PPG and 4.3 RPG after gaining a starting role late in the year. Yet the big issue with Black was his fouling. In 14.3 minutes per game, he averaged 2.7 fouls, an astronomical number for the amount of playing time given. "Savage", as his is colloquially referred to, was often too aggressive, shoving around opponents leading to free throws for the other side. While his energy can be a major plus for Illinois, it can also serve severe consequences.
Groce has praised Black in the past for having a solid jump shot and said he wouldn’t be surprised is he had a three-point game by the time he’s an upperclassmen. As the Illini fight for the right to return to the NCAA tournament, Black could be a serious X-factor in getting to opponents both physically and mentally.
He's currently nursing a meniscus injury that will leave him out until likely the beginning of December. However when he returns, expect Black to be back and better than before.
By no means do the Illini have an elite set of front court players, but this may be the best group of Illini big men in a long time. Thorne will be huge, and a potential third team All-Big Ten candidate, Finke will play valuable minutes and surprise some doubters, and Black will be a beast down low when healthy. As far as Maverick Morgan goes, well, not much has changed. These guys have the starting talent to compete with some of the best in the Big Ten, and beyond.