Illinois has a lot of potential next season. They're deep in the guard and wing positions, but they were potentially facing a Nnanna Egwu-sized hole at the center position. After today, Illini fans should feel much more at ease regarding depth in their frontcourt.
Mike Thorne, a graduate transfer from Charlotte, was highly coveted from the moment when he announced he'd transfer. In fact, Thorne had scheduled visits to both Kentucky and Kansas for the upcoming weekends but after seeing Champaign he knew he wanted to be an Illini. Thorne, a 6-foot-11 redshirt junior, is a big body in the paint at 270 lbs and he'll likely start for the Illini right away. He scored 10.1 points per game and brought down 7.3 rebounds per contest which are numbers Illinois fans would be happy to see the big man replicate in the Big Ten. In the video below, you can see highlights from Charlotte's loss against Miami earlier this season. Thorne, wearing #12, scored 17 in the loss:
Thorne stands out in his quickness and leaping ability, even against a high major opponent in the Miami Hurricanes. When he receives the ball, he is very decisive and moves immediately towards the basket. Beyond simply being able to catch the ball well in traffic, you can see that he has a nice jump hook and his explosiveness at his size should allow him to get pretty good looks at the rim. What should be most exciting for Illini fans, though, is Thorne's rebounding. We saw a bit of it in this highlights above but on the year Thorne was extremely impressive and consistently aggressive on the glass. Per Kenpom.com, Mike finished within the top 130 players in the nation in both offensive and defensive rebound percentage meaning that he was consistently grabbing a high number of the available rebounds on both ends of the court. That has to be music to the ears of Illini fans as Illinois' most aggressive rebounder last year was probably Rayvonte Rice.
Thorne will anchor the center position for the Illini which should allow guys like Darius Paul and Maverick Morgan to be more comfortable guarding forwards. Between Nnanna Egwu and Rayvonte Rice the Illini lose both of their leading rebounders and Thorne should do a lot to help the Illinoi replace that production. And while he helps John Groce replace some of the rebounding he is losing, perimeter players like Tracy Abrams, Malcolm Hill, and Kendrick Nunn should keep defenses from being able to collapse on Thorne which should free him up offensively. Looking ahead to next season, when guys like Diamond Stone, Thomas Bryant, Daniel Giddens, Caleb Swanigan, and Deyonta Davis are all joining the Big Ten, it was imperative that the Illini have someone to bang around down low and it looks like they've found their man in Mike Thorne. Illinois may still be facing an uphill battle to return to the NCAA Tournament field, but Thorne gives them a fighting chance.