What Illini fans saw out of Mike Thorne Jr. on Sunday at the All-In scrimmage was something the program has lacked for quite some time.
But with the 6-foot-11 big man, a post who commands touches in the paint and can finish with a variety of moves is no longer foreign. Thorne dribbled left and spun back for a smooth right hook. He pulled in an offensive board, power dribbled and finished for an and-one. He posted high for a lob feed, caught it and threw it down with a plus-one free throw upcoming.
For most of the Illini faithful in attendance and watching on the online stream, it was their first real look at the fifth-year transfer in orange and blue. Thorne certainly did not disappoint by finishing with 15 points, 15 rebounds and four blocks in 24 minutes of action. Even if all that came in a meaningless scrimmage against backup center Maverick Morgan, Thorne's presence is huge (not just physically) at a crucial time.
Head coach John Groce is adjusting on the fly with the amount of players who will be in street clothes for the season opener. The Illini will need to find points in different ways with two of their top three returning scorers, Kendrick Nunn and Leron Black, set to be sidelined. Obviously, much will be asked of Malcolm Hill to light up the scoreboard, but Thorne's offensive ability will also be key.
Groce and his staff knew what they had with Thorne's back-to-the-basket game this summer, so it was no secret that would be an added aspect of the offense. But after watching on Sunday, there's no question that feeding the post is now a focal point. The Illini are going to let the big man eat, and while Groce hasn't had an offensively inclined post in Champaign until now, he should remember how to utilize bigs of that nature from coaching Greg Oden, Terence Dials and David West.
As for Thorne, he showed he could score at Charlotte by averaging 10.1 points per game. He posted a season-high 23 points with 16 rebounds in a double-overtime win over Penn State last season. Thorne was third on the team in scoring, and yet, he told IlliniInquirer.com on Sunday that he is getting more touches now than ever before.
"This is probably the most I've had the ball in my life, here," Thorne said. "I'm happy about it. You can't complain about that. The coach is trying to get you the ball."
There's a reason Illinois was able to beat out Kansas for the big fella. He's going to have as much opportunity as he can handle, and it will be important to have him going early on with a tough nonconference slate. But that's not necessarily what made Thorne a must-get for Groce this spring. The Illini had to have him with the down low gauntlet that is shaping up in the Big Ten.
The conference is as strong as it's been top to bottom, and a good amount of that strength is streamlined through the post. Purdue returns starting center A.J. Hammons, who was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year last season. Maryland brings back Jake Layman, who is a versatile scorer and the Terps' leading rebounder from last year. Meanwhile, Wisconsin has Nigel Hayes looking to take on a bigger role after two impressive seasons in Madison.
Northwestern is also excited about senior center Alex Olah, who averaged 11.7 points and 6.9 rebounds per game last year. Overall, there is a strong returning group down low despite Frank Kaminsky and Branden Dawson exiting the fray. But the newcomers are the game-changers.
The Big Ten will introduce four McDonald's All-American big guys: Diamond Stone (Maryland), Deyonta Davis (Michigan State), Thomas Bryant (Indiana) and Caleb Swanigan (Purdue). Ohio State also has an impressive freshman center in Daniel Giddens, who was ranked as one of the top 60 players in the 2015 class by Scout.com.
Buckeyes head coach Thad Matta talked about what lies ahead for Giddens and other bigs across the conference.
"It's going to be challenging. You've got a great mix veterans and youth," Matta said. "The low post is going to be a very important part of Big Ten basketball this year across the board."
The hard-hatted Boilermakers look to be best suited for battle with Hammons, Swanigan and 7-foot-2 center Isaac Haas. Head coach Matt Painter gave his thoughts on the landscape.
"When you look across the league, there are great bigs across the board. This is a great league for big guys. It's something we sell in recruiting," Painter said. "We talk about it all the time. Through analytics and other stats, we show how much we like to throw the ball inside. Then we also sell that our league gets big guys. Not only are you getting better every day in practice against our size, but you play against guys like that every night in our conference."
It's a great time for the Illini to have their best low-post scoring threat since Shaun Pruitt. Thorne still needs to prove it on the big stage, and he will be tested especially on the defensive end. But he knew what he was signing up for and he's ready for the challenge.
"I'm excited. I think it will be a lot different from Conference USA, but it's part of the reason I came here," Thorne said. "I want competition and want to show people how good I really am."
One thing is for sure: Thorne isn't going to get pushed around on the low block. He'll make his moves and finish strong through contact. Building up confidence in the nonconference will be crucial, as will the return of Black when the going gets tough.
It's not time to overreact about Thorne's dominance at Ubben, but Illini fans should certainly be excited. There are questions to be answered with conditioning and defense. But this program and fan base deserve some reason for optimism with the first game fast approaching.