The bad breaks keep on coming for John Groce and the Illini basketball program, as starting big man Mike Thorne Jr. underwent surgery for a torn meniscus on Monday - per Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports.
Illinois was just starting to get healthy and look like the team that was envisioned for this season. The Illini played their best basketball over the weekend at the Emerald Coast Classic with the return of Kendrick Nunn, Jaylon Tate and Leron Black. They handled UAB on Friday night and were within three points of No. 4 Iowa State with less than eight minutes to go on Saturday.
But with Thorne going down, the Illini are faced with yet another huge blow. The 6-foot-11 center is not only one of the best players on the roster, but he is an emerging leader and one of the most likeable personalities on the team.
According to Rothstein's report, it's possible that Thorne could return this season. That coincides with the release by the program on Monday evening which stated that Thorne's meniscus was removed during surgery. Typically, that results in a quicker return (like Black).
Thorne averaged 13.4 points and 8.4 rebounds per game through the first seven contests. Only Malcom Hill has scored more points, and Thorne leads the team in rebounding by a significant margin. Having a low-post scorer was a game-changer for the Illinois offense, and it was something that fans did not take for granted.
According to sports-reference.com, Thorne is top-five in the Big Ten is usage rate - which is calculated based on the percentage of plays run through a specific player. Groce finally had a big man who demanded post touches, got to the free throw line frequently and created space with defenses focused on containing his scoring output. Thorne also kept possessions alive on the offensive glass, as he is top-100 in the country in offensive boards per game (3.14).
Replacing that level of production will be nearly impossible, but Groce will once again need to find an answer to an unforeseen misfortune. No team in the country has faced this type of injury wave, and it's hard to remember a similar stretch in recent history.
Who Must Step Up
The Illini have been very encouraged by Maverick Morgan's offensive production in the backup center role. Morgan has made noticeable strides with his game, and he is averaging 6.4 points per contest and converting 67.7 percent of his field goal attempts. Now, the junior big man will be asked to do even more. Morgan looks to be the most natural fit at the five, although there are still questions whether he can compete against high-level competition in the paint.
The Illini played Black at the five for a good chunk of the second half against Iowa State. Groce may elect to go small if the matchup allows. Black is a better option defensively and on the glass than Morgan and redshirt freshman Michael Finke. He is averaging 11.5 rebounds per 40 minutes, while Morgan (8.1) and Finke (4.9) are at lower clips. The key will be whether Black can limit his fouls, especially against bigger opponents.
Finke will have more on his plate as well. He's had impressive offensive stretches, as he is averaging 6.9 points per game and shooting 50 percent from the field. The challenge for Finke will be to get more comfortable defending around the hoop and attacking the backboard. Those are not strengths of his game, but he'll need to be a bigger contributor in those areas.
What Changes Offensively
Groce's offense had a new look this season with an emphasis on feeding the post as often as possible. Thorne was able to score down low with a variety of moves, while also drawing fouls and getting to the line. The Illini transitioned from their constant high ball-screen looks with Nnanna Egwu to an offense that allowed Thorne to spot up on the block and receive a high volume of post entries.
Illinois' ability to go inside-out was a big reason they didn't struggle to score even with Nunn and Black sidelined. However, it was a different story when Thorne was taken out of the picture in the second half against Iowa State. The Illini could not manage without a reliable third scoring option to go along with Hill (20 points) and Nunn (19).
Going forward, this team still certainly has guys who can score. Coleman-Lands will be asked to do more if Hill slides down to the four spot and Black plays the five. The freshman guard has proven his ability to light it up from long range. Finke, Morgan and Black are all capable offensive threats as well. The question is how things change schematically.
Morgan is also a guy that wants to spot up down low, but that doesn't play to the style of Finke and Black. It's logical to think that the Illini use more high ball-screen sets with Finke at the five, which will open up some pick 'n pop looks. They can do the same with Black, as they try to free up the ball-handler and give Black a lane to roll to the hoop.
The Illini will use a lot of four-out looks, which will hinge on the guards moving the ball and creating off the bounce. Nunn and Hill will make this offense go, while the supporting cast will all need to up their games.
What Changes Defensively
Thorne is not known as a defensive specialist, and he is a sizeable downgrade from what the Illini had at that end with Egwu last season. That being said, Thorne leads the team with five blocks this year. Furthermore, he has the size and length to be a formidable matchup against other bigs across the Big Ten. Guys like A.J. Hammons, Diamond Stone and Thomas Bryant just became even scarier opponents for the Illini.
Groce knew that Thorne would be in his starting lineup every game, but now, the five spot will largely be dictated by the defensive matchup. Illinois will likely look to start Black at the five when they aren't giving up a huge size advantage. This allows Groce to put more of his best players on the floor. But you don't necessarily want Black to guard any seven-footers.
Morgan and Finke will have be forced to handle those tasks, although neither one of them are good defenders. Morgan has been good at the offensive end, but he is still slow-footed and he has been known to get pushed around against tough opponents. Finke will also likely have problems holding his ground and providing resistance.
The Illini played their best defensive game on Friday against UAB, as they forced 16 turnovers and held the Blazers under 39 percent shooting, while playing mostly man-to-man. Groce has adjusted his defensive strategy with each new opponent, and that will certainly continue. The Illini may be forced to play more zone against bigger teams, especially if they are playing a smaller lineup.
Ultimately, the key for Illinois to defend is to lock up on the perimeter and prevent drives to the hoop. This will put less stress on the interior, and it will limit mismatches due to defensive rotation. Of course, that is easier said than done.