Mike Thorne takes center stage for Illini

Fifth-year transfer dominates down low in Illini intrasquad scrimmage

CHAMPAIGN - Following a transfer from UNC-Charlotte, Mike Thorne Jr. didn’t expect a starring role at Illinois.

But after Saturday’s Illinois basketball All-In Scrimmage in front of a selected group of about 300 fans at Ubben Basketball Complex, Thorne received the largest ovation during post-scrimmage introductions.

llini fans -- who during the past decade haven’t often seen such a large player with such post skill on display -- apprecaited the 6-foot-11, 275-pound center’s interior offensive dominance during the three-period, 24-minute intrasquad scrimmage.

Thorne, who had 15 points and 15 rebounds (six offensive), appreciated the high quanity of post touches.

“This is probably the most I’ve had the ball in my life, here,” said Thorne, who averaged 10.1 points and 7.3 rebounds last season for the 49ers. “And I came from a mid-major so it’s just surprising that I’m getting the ball more here at a high-major than I did in the past. I’m happy about it. You can’t complain about that. The coach is trying to get you the ball.”

Thorne showed off fancy footwork on the block, and the right-hander displayed a dangerous hook shot with both hands (he said he just added the left-handed hook this offseason).

“A lot of guys you can cut them off left shoulder,” said redshirt freshman Michael Finke (12 points). “But Big Mike, you cut off his left shoulder and he just turns around (over his right shoulder) and uses his left hand. It’s a nightmare for defenders.”

No Illini on the court could stop Thorne in the post -- except maybe former Illini Nnanna Egwu, who watched the scrimmage from the sideline.

“Put a body on him, otherwise he’s going to bury you and it’s over with,” said Egwu, who was assigned to the NBA D-League’s Erie BayHawks after playing the preseason with the Orlando Magic. “They got to double-team him. One-on-one, no one’s going to guard him. No one’s going to stop him. The only way you can stop him is he misses a shot. You’re going to have to double-team him and if you have a team full of great shooters and slashers, that’s going to open up the game for him.”

Egwu was an All-Big Ten Defensive Team selection but was “more of a forward in a 6-11, 250-pound body,” Illinois coach John Groce said, and struggled catching and scoring in the post.

Thorne changes the dynamic of the Illinois offense.

“Offensively, he’s unlike anything we’ve had over the four years (at Illinois),” Groce said. “Offensively for us, he gives us a little bit different dimension down there in the post. Obviously, he can demand double teams and demand different defenses and coverages, whether it’s digging or whatever. When you can do that and surround him with a few guys that can make shots, I think that gives us a better dimension offensively.”

Groce said Thorne must improve his defense -- replacing Egwu on that end isn’t so easily -- and Thorne admits another weakness: fatigue.

The burly big man, who averaged 26.1 minutes last season, was huffing and puffing for air midway through the second of three eight-minute periods during the scrimmage.

Thorne doesn’t run as well as Egwu -- though few centers can -- but he also is a Type 1 diabetic. Managing his disease, which requires six to eight insulin shots a day, through diet and sleeping habits is a priority.

“I wouldn’t use it as an excuse,” said Thorne, who was diagnosed with diabetes when he was 5 years old. “I just feel like when I don’t feel right and I don’t eat right, then it makes conditioning tough for me. …If you stay on top of it, it’s not very hard to control.”

With injuries sidelining four of the Illini’s top six offensive options -- junior guard Kendrick Nunn (out two months - thumb), senior guard Tracy Abrams (out for season - Achilles), sophomore forward Leron Black (out a month - meniscus) and freshman guard Jalen Coleman-Lands (out a week or two - leg) -- Thorne likely will have to take a center role very early in the season. And his presence should help junior star Malcolm Hill (10 points) and those injured surrounding scorers earn space when they return.

In his first public appearance in the orange and blue, the new Big Ten big man looked ready, excited and able to take center stage for the Illini.

“I was a little nervous at first just the first time playing in front of a crowd of people,” Thorne said. “But as the game went along, I think I found my touch a little bit and got more comfortable with everything.”

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