The Fighting Illini recently signed sought after transfer Mike Thorne Jr. from Charlotte to play his final season of eligibility at Illinois. This represents possibly the biggest recruiting success of John Groce's offseason, especially given the loss of Illini big man Nnanna Egwu. But big picture, what is to be learned from this signing? And even broader, what does this say about Groce and his love for the senior transfer?
Thorne marks the fourth senior transfer in as many years for John Groce. Past examples have included Coastal Carolina's Sam McLaurin, Illinois State's Jon Ekey and Oregon State's Ahmad Starks. These players are often touted as guys that were not good enough to get recruited by a big program out of high school, but improve their games to a point where they can compete at the next level. In fact, nearly all of these recruits have entered the Illini program with high expectations.
Take Starks for instance. A 5-9 point guard out of Chicagoland's Whitney Young, Starks was considered too small to play in most large scale programs. He chose Oregon State for the opportunity to play in a starting role while also retaining the competition of a major conference like the Pac-12. He soon rose to become one of the best players on his team, nearly breaking the single season record for three pointers with 79 in his freshman year. After his junior season, Starks had set the OSU record for all time three point field goals with 185. Coming into Illinois, many expected him to be a knock down shooter that would make around 38% of his threes, just like he did with the Beavers. However, Starks struggled. He finished the season shooting 32.7% from beyond the arc, hitting just 48 threes throughout the season.
The issue with the senior transfer is that it's only a temporary fix. Guys like McLaurin and Ekey filled vacant positions, but were not meant to be long term solutions for Groce's program. We can even see this with the Thorne singing. Illinois has lacked an effective offensive presence in the paint for many years, dating back to the Bruce Weber era. With Egwu graduating, Groce knew he had to fill the senior's shoes. This led to his chase after Thomas and Bragg, both of which he missed out on and subsequently the second tier recruitment of Thorne who, rather than stay four years, will only have one.
While nobody is complaining about the Thorne signing, it still highlights a lack of sustainability within this program. The best teams in the nation grow their own talent from within and let it develop into true form in its latter years (see Frank Kaminsky, Travis Trice, A.J. Hammons).
Groce has preached the desire for sustained excellence in this Illini program, yet has so far failed to deliver. Just this past week, Illinois hosted Villanova transfer and potential signee Dylan Ennis in hopes of getting him to commit for his senior season. While Ennis would certainly help the Illini with finding a suitable point guard, he wouldn't be there when the Illini play the 2016-2017 season. That being said, it's possible the conclusion on the senior transfer is premature. Thone and possibly Ennis in many ways carry the fate of John Groce on their shoulders. It'll be interesting to see how it turns out this time.