What a Wednesday, huh?! With two pieces of positive news, one negative and one yet to be determined, Illinois basketball's future received a bit more clarity but also became a bit more fuzzy.
Congratulations to Mike Thorne Jr. and congratulations to the NCAA. The oft-criticized (deservedly) organization earned applause from me (watch my video reaction) for its decision on Thorne Jr. While Thorne's case went contradicted the letter of the law on medical redshirts, the NCAA rightfully made Thorne Jr. an exception due to his exceptional circumstances. In the end, the NCAA didn't set a dangerous precedent and made a decision that is in the best interest of the student-athlete. Hear, hear!
Thorne's return is simply massive for the Illini. If I made a list of Illini with the most value to the 2016-17 season, Malcolm Hill -- a Big Ten Player of the Year candidate -- would obviously be first. But Thorne likely would be second. Yes, ahead of Kendrick Nunn and Jalen Coleman-Lands. Thorne Jr. showed in his nine games last season how much he changes the Illini. After all, he showed up on a bad knee against Indiana and totaled nine points and nine rebounds in 16 minutes. He's an elite -- yes, elite -- rebounder. He's not a great one-on-one defender, but he severely limits other teams' second-chance opportunities and provides a presence in the middle. He's not an overly efficient shooter (47.3 percent last season) but the Illini can play inside-out with him on the court, giving more room for the outside shooters. There simply aren't many better big men in the Big Ten, outside of Indiana's Thomas Bryant, Wisconsin's Ethan Happ and Purdue's Caleb Swanigan. Of course, there is the risk of re-injury or setbacks with Thorne, but his return greatly improves the Illini's chances of breaking a three-year NCAA Tournament drought.
The Illini now have a formidable front court. Thorne and vastly improved senior center Maverick Morgan at the 5. Each is an effective interior scorer and could play 20 minutes per game with sophomore Michael Finke possibly playing some minutes against smaller matchups. Leron Black and FInke will man the four. Hill (who played every position on the floor last year) can slide more to the three or just play the spot that allows him more mismatches. D.J. Williams and Kipper Nichols provide length, athleticism and versatility. On paper, that's the strongest, deepest and most versatile the Illini have looked in the front court in years.
The back court ... well, we'll see. But regardless of the off-the-court outcomes, Illinois is much-improved at point guard with Tracy Abrams' return (assuming his return) and the addition of Te'Jon Lucas. Plus, the Illini have one of the most dangerous shooters in the Big Ten: Jalen Coleman-Lands. Also, Aaron Jordan should take a step forward as a sophomore (we'll see how big), and Hill and Abrams can always play the two.
There is no official word yet on Abrams or Black receiving redshirts, but both perfectly fit the requirements. Also, there is no official word yet on when Nichols will be eligible. But he will be able to play at the latest at the conclusion of the fall semester (mid-December).
Josh Whitman and John Groce have a huge test following Kendrick Nunn's admission that he struck a woman. As I vocalized in yesterday's video, while he plead guilty to simple battery, he legally did not commit domestic battery. But do the semantics matter? We'll find out soon. Whitman told The News-Gazette's Loren Tate that "domestic violence" is "intolerable." To me, that reads as Nunn will be gone. But does Whitman the lawyer define those terms by the strict legal definitions? Nunn is a talented player who undoubtedly will have a huge impact on whether the Illini make the NCAA Tournament next season. But that should not be a consideration in the ultimate decision on his future. Neither should upsetting anyone in Chicago. I'm a big believer in second chances, but I'm also a big believer in setting a culture and discipline. I also agree with Whitman that domestic violence is "intolerable." This is a defining moment for Whitman setting a standard in his department. His motto is #WeWillWin. How will he try to do it? Nunn must receive harsh discipline for his actions. Is a semester enough for striking a woman? Not for me. A season? Dismissal? Whitman and Groce will answer that soon.
The Charlie Moore recruitment was another fun Chicago recruitment! And we got to live through it twice. Fun stuff! Of course, he committed to California -- a school in recent weeks that most hadn't thought had a chance until early yesterday. At times, you feel like Illinois should just avoid these kind of recruitments because 1) they don't win these often; and 2) often are criticized for not winning these recruitments. But Illinois simply can't ignore Chicago Public League talents because 1) those talents can make a huge impact on Illinois; and 2) they'll be ostracized if they don't pursue these players. Since Groce took over at Illinois, he has pursued most of the top players out of the Mac Irvin Fire program. He's landed one: downstater and 2017 legacy Da'Monte Williams. Illinois has shown the love to that AAU program, but that affection hasn't been reciprocated for several reasons, the Illini's lack of wins being just one.
Moore certainly would have helped Illinois. He's a top-75 recruit, a tough player and a CPL kid who can simply fill it up. He and Te'Jon Lucas would have stabilized the Illini's biggest weakness of recent seasons (point guard) for the foreseeable future. But his decision to go to Cal is a reminder of how much Illinois fans should appreciate Lucas, a four-star, Big Ten-caliber point guard. While Moore and Xavier Simpson played games, Lucas' recruitment was honest and straight-forward. He wanted to be an Illini -- Moore at times appeared he wanted to -- so he simply chose to be an Illini. While the drama sometimes is entertaining, the Illini have done better with no-frills recruitments like Lucas, D.J. Williams, Aaron Jordan and Jalen Coleman-Lands.
Dee Brown wants to be a coach, and he took one step closer yesterday. Whitman offered him the opportunity to join Groce's support staff in a newly created role. I like this move for all involved. Whitman keeps the greatest living Illini icon in his department. Brown gets one step closer to the college coaching world. Groce now gets Brown's efforts focused solely on his program. And while there might be some awkwardness for the current assistants -- many Illini fans want Brown to replace one of the current three assistants -- this move should squelch that talk for a year. Groce gets to use Brown's unique talents in recruiting and as a mentor to current players (needed right now), while Brown gets much-needed experience inside the coaching office to prepare him for the profession. Brown may need to leave Illinois before he becomes a full-time assistant or the UI head coach. He said as much to me on the radio yesterday (listen to the podcast here). But he said his ultimate goal after falling point short as a player is to "coach Illinois to a national championship." Dee Brown's increased presence simply is one of the brightest spots of these recent dark Illini years.