Duane "Skip" Thoren played for Illinois three years from 1962-65. In that time, the 6'-9" center from Rockford East High School established himself as one of the best all-time Illini players. He still holds the top two positions in season average rebounding with 13.8 boards in 1963-64 and 14.5 in 1964-65. No one else is close. His 22.2 scoring average as a senior ranks 4th all-time.
A member of the Illinois All-Century team, Thoren's jersey number is honored among 30 that hang conspicuously from the Assembly Hall rafters. He had a distinguished professional career in the old American Basketball Association with Milwaukee and Miami.
Thoren was part of one of the best freshman classes ever assembled at Illinois. His class included Tal Brody, Bogie Redman, Darius "Pete" Cunningham, Jim Seeley, Bill McKeown, Larry Bauer, and Trenton Jackson.
Freshmen were ineligible at that time, but they were scheduled for two encounters with an Illini varsity that included Dave Downey, Bill Small, Bill Burwell, Bob Starnes and Jerry Colangelo. The varsity won both games, but barely.
When the two groups were combined for the 1962-63 season, the Illini had a 20-6 overall record and tied for first with Ohio State in the Big 10 with 11-3 marks. The NCAA tournament was limited to 16 teams at the time, but the Illini made it to the second round before falling to eventual champion Chicago Loyola. Associated Press ranked them as the 8th best team in the country that year.
Thoren was happy to share memories and talk basketball on his return to Illinois.
"I come back about every year. I live in Louisville, Kentucky, so it's about a five hour drive. So I'm pretty close, and I get to see a lot of friends I've known over the past several years. It's a lot of fun to see the newer and older players come back and enjoy Illini basketball."
He enjoys watching Bruce Weber's current team.
"I think they're phenomenal. They're obviously very dependent on the three point shot, and you know how well that goes. But they have a good inside-outside game, and they move the ball well. I think their defense is very strong; they really work hard at it.
"Bruce Weber really moves them in and out a lot. It's nice to see all the dynamics of the team, and how they work together very well. Illinois is a strong team. Hopefully they'll do well in the tournament."
Thoren has an explanation for why current players don't often approach school records anymore.
"It's a lot different from the Harry Combes teams and the Lou Henson teams, where the starters played a lot of minutes. But now it seems a trend where they rotate out the people a lot more. You don't see many players playing 35 minutes or 40 minutes a game.
"It makes a lot of difference regarding records being set. It's a different game today than it was because these players don't have the minutes to do that. It's really all about winning."
It was more a finesse game when Thoren played. Defense now plays a much more important role, which reduces scoring totals.
"Yeah, it's a lot more physical game now than it was back when we played. They let the game go. It's almost to the point where they make it more difficult because at the end of the game, it depends on how the officials call it.
"We know there are a lot of fouls that should be called, and they're a lot of fouls that shouldn't be called. If that happens in the last two minutes of a game, it can actually turn the game around. That's just the way it is. It's an exciting game to watch."
The Assembly Hall has become a solid home court advantage for the Illini, at least when fans pack the seats and are fired up for a game. But it was a cold, depressing cavern for players when it first opened. Thoren knows, he was there.
"That's right. It was 1963. Our last two games were our first two games in the Assembly Hall. It became a real disadvantage for us because we were playing for the championship.
"We tied Ohio State for the championship of the Big 10, but it was a disadvantage because Huff Gym held so many people so close. When we came here, all the fans were so far removed it was like playing on a neutral court.
"They've moved people now down closer to the floor since they first opened it. It's a great place to play. Illinois has done a phenomenal job of getting the fans closer to the game.
The orange they've added, and the excitement they generate is really a home court advantage now for Illinois. It's because of the fans and the students and how they market it. It's really exciting to play here."
Thoren had an unstoppable hook shot. The shot lost popularity for a few years but may be coming back in vogue.
"Yeah, but a lot of it is a jump hook. It's not a fluid motion. It was a great shot for me. You don't see it a lot in basketball, but it's coming back."
Why did it become less popular?
"I think there's more contact now than when I was shooting that. When you're somewhat off balance on a hook shot, it doesn't take much to nudge somebody and throw their shot off.
"I also think they teach you to go to the hoop more, and a hook shot tends to take you away from the hoop. If you're trying to rebound, it's better to go with your momentum to the hoop rather than going away from the hoop.
"Once you get it down, you can go right or left with it. It's a tremendous weapon. Kareem Abdul Jabbar used it at UCLA and in the pros very effectively. It's a difficult shot to block. That's the reason why we used it."
Rebounding has been a problem for Illini teams in recent years. Who better than the expert to explain it?
"Blocking out isn't considered a real fundamental. I know they teach it. But I think the other thing you don't see is the intensity going after the ball and how important getting the ball is. I see the faces of the players, and they don't have that passion for the ball.
"Truthfully, to me it's a blue collar job, a thankless job. You can take a lot of pride in it, first anticipating where the ball is gonna be at, and then blocking your man out and hopefully your teammates are doing the same thing. It's an art and a science. I enjoyed rebounding as much as I did scoring.
"We could use some of that. It's not that we don't have the height. Really, it's the tenacity going after the ball. You have to have that passion on every shot."
Thoren utilized his Illini degree to have a successful career after basketball.
"I've been retired now three years. I was general manager of a box plant, corrugated shipping containers. I was there 35 years. I was in sales the first 15 years, and the last 15-20 years I was in general management."