CHAMPAIGN -- On most days of leisure back home in Fayetteville, N.C., you'll find Mike Thorne Jr. with a fishing pole in hand waiting for a bite.
Last offseason, the Illini were angling for some major down low help on the fifth-year transfer market. And they got it in the 6-foot-11, 270-pound variety by reeling Thorne away from pursuits by Kansas and Kentucky.
Thorne gave Illinois attributes at center that the program hadn't seen in years. A space-eater. A back-to-the-basket scorer. A high-volume rebounder. In his season debut, he racked up 25 points and 14 rebounds.
But 15 days later, Illini fans watched Thorne limp to the locker room in the middle of the first half against No. 4 Iowa State at the Emerald Coast Classic. He then joined the 'street clothes crew' with a meniscus tear in his left knee, which kept him out for 11 straight games.
With Illinois' season spiraling down, Thorne returned to action in a primetime clash at Indiana on Jan. 19. He was still clearly hobbled by the injury, but he managed to produce nine points and nine rebounds in 16 minutes of action.
Unfortunately, that was the last time Thorne would suit up in an Illinois uniform that season due to injury setbacks after the 34-point blowout loss. Even more unfortunate was the fact that his appearance in that game -- seemingly a wasted occurrence -- crossed the line set by the NCAA required to obtain a medical redshirt.
Based on the law of the land, it appeared to be rather clear cut that Thorne's collegiate career was over.
The only shot was to play on the NCAA's openness to review cases with extraordinary circumstances -- for which they can rule as they see fit. Illinois' season was anything but ordinary with seven players missing a combined total of 98 games due to injuries and other circumstances.
The Illini stated that Thorne's diabetes affected his ability to recover. They also believed that his one appearance on the back end of the season's halfway point should not disqualify him from receiving one more year. A year that could play a huge role in paving the path to his post-grad career.
So at season's end, John Groce, Thorne and the Illinois program cast a collective line into the water just hoping to catch a break. The wait dragged on through the end of the school year without a nibble.
But with an always positive mindset, God-driven faith and patience learned from days out on the lake, Thorne remained confident that good news was on the way sometime, somehow.
Thorne went back home to North Carolina after finals concluded. Just more than a week later, the phone rang.
One day after turning 23 years old on May 17, Thorne was in the gym with his father, Mike Sr., doing some rehab work. The unassuming big man had one more birthday present left to open, and it came in the form of a phone call.
"I saw my phone ringing and I saw it was John Groce. At that point, I knew he knew something. My heart started to beat a little bit fast," Thorne said. "My dad was like 'are you going to answer it?' So I answered, and we started talking."
"He was like 'what's up, Bo?' He started asking me questions about how it was going and how's home been. He knows I like to fish, so he asked me if I had done any fishing yet. I said 'no, not quite yet'. Then he goes, 'congratulations on being part of the Illini men's basketball team for another year'."
Shock waves were sent through Thorne's body with a passionate burst of excitement and a liberating feeling of relief.
"It was truly one of the happiest days of my life. It was like a birthday present," Thorne said. "My dad started jumping up and down. And I was just excited to be back with this great family and the staff and be back with my teammates and do something special."
There were 67 days that came and passed between the end of Illinois' final game at the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis and the call made by Coach Groce. That's a time frame that would bring angst to even the most patient of men.
But Thorne was always positive and well-assured.
"I just put my faith in God. I knew that he had a plan for me," Thorne said. "It was hard to sit and wait. But I believed that I would be back. The coaches stayed confident with me. And I'm just blessed for this opportunity."
Back at it
Thorne and his teammates returned to campus last month for summer school and the start of workouts. Groce met with the media on June 16 to talk about his team, which included an update on Thorne's status.
"Knee looks good -- really good. Structurally great. Strength between the two knees is very similar, which is what you want so that you don't overcompensate. We do want to get him into better cardio condition. Drop just a few pounds to take some of that stress off the lower body," Groce said. "We're going to assess and monitor him. Try to get the weight at a certain number. Make sure we continue to get his lower body to where it needs to be as well."
Less than two weeks later, Thorne was cleared for non-contact activity in workouts. He feels good about where his progress is with the knee right now.
"I feel it's at about 80 or 90 percent. There's a lot more strength in it. I'm getting more confident in it," Thorne said. "I've been doing everything that's non-contact in practice. I've been doing individual skill workouts. I've been working to get myself back in shape. Overall, I think the knee is doing great."
How close is he to cutting it loose?
"I'm not going to put a date on it right now," Thorne said. "If I had to put a guess, I'd probably say a few weeks away."
There's no need to rush with the start of the season still sitting just less than four months away on the horizon. But there are certain areas of improvement that Thorne wants to make before he gets there.
"I just want to be very conditioned, more efficient and just work on my defensive intangibles on the court," he said.
Thorne isn't the only one trying to work his way back to game shape and peak performance. Groce started his press conference last month with a list of updates on the injury brigade, which included Thorne, Tracy Abrams, Te'Jon Lucas, Leron Black and Jalen Coleman-Lands.
Like Thorne, Abrams is also back for a sixth year of eligibility. The bulldog point guard, who has already been a two-year starter in the Big Ten, is coming back from a torn Achilles tendon that he suffered last July. At that time, he was returning from a torn ACL that kept him out of the previous season.
It's been a long road for Abrams, but he has continued to overcome. Thorne is happy that his fellow collegiate veteran will also get his shot at redemption.
"It's exciting. The thing that excites me about him is how vocal he is and his leadership. I think that's going to pay dividends for the team," Thorne said. "He's just another experienced, older guy on the team. Obviously, I've never really had the chance to play with Tracy. From what I know, he's a great player and I just look forward to playing with him."
Respect the process
Seeing where the bar of expectation sits for Illinois basketball this season is about as easy as seeing your palm when holding your hand up to your face.
Players know it. Coaches know it. Fans know it. The Illini have missed the NCAA tournament for three straight seasons, which is the longest drought the program has had in 36 years.
Abrams is the only player on the current roster that has experienced an NCAA tournament game. Changing that -- with a team that has depth, experience and adequate talent -- is the baseline in Champaign. There are aspirations to go even higher than that.
But the team has tunneled their vision to focus on the process.
"Our goal right now is just focusing on the process. Getting better and know the things we need to get better at. Personally, I think and I believe that we will be the best team in the Big Ten. Our goal is to win the championship. But as we always mention, talk is cheap," Thorne said. "You have to go through a process of making sure you give it your all in the weight room. You give it your all in practice. You can't skip steps. You can talk about how you're going to do something, but I think we're doing a really good job of putting in the work. Hopefully, when November comes around, we can show people how much hard work we've put in and how special we're going to be."
Last season certainly left a mark. It took its toll. But with that chapter closed, it can be used as a benefit.
Groce used the words "hungry" and "galvanized" to describe his team entering summer workouts. They know what last year felt like, and they never want to experience that again. They know they have the talent to be a hammer rather than a nail in the Big Ten spectrum.
A part of that ability can be attributed to the unfortunate nature of last season. While Groce's projected frontcourt tandem of Thorne and Black played just five games together, Maverick Morgan and Michael Finke were given opportunities to develop and learn.
It was trial by fire. Groce always says that the strongest steel is made in the hottest fire. Well, that fire has crafted what looks to be one of the strongest and most versatile frontcourts you'll find in the Big Ten and beyond -- if healthy.
"I think we'll be the most versatile frontcourt in the country. I just think if we stay focused and we don't skip any steps in the process, I think we can all do some special things together that we can all look back on and say, 'wow, that was fun'," Thorne said. "Mav looks so much more fluid on the court now. Finke has gotten stronger in the weight room. Leron, like me, is coming off of injury, but he's recovered well and he's back playing well. I'm really excited to play with those guys."
Painfully watching from the sideline. Having your collegiate career floating in the air. Wondering if you'll ever put on the uniform again with your beloved brothers. Going home and waiting for the phone to ring.
Any of that would terrify most in Thorne's shoes. But that wild ride wasn't the one that scared Thorne the most in the last year. That award goes to the roller coasters he rode on his trip to Disney World with Finke in May.
"I hadn't been on rollercoasters in a long time, and I had never really been a fan of them. I was pretty scared. I was pretty terrified," Thorne said laughing.
Thorne's roommate, Malcolm Hill, saw the pictures and he agreed the big fella would probably be the most fun of anyone to take to an amusement park.
"Oh yeah, definitely. You know he’s loud to begin with so I’m pretty sure he was the loudest one on every ride he went on," Hill said. "Probably scaring kids and grownups."
Thorne definitely drew some looks.
"I think people were wondering: 'What's wrong with this big man doing all this screaming and stuff. He's acting more scared than these kids are'," Thorne said. "That's probably what they were thinking, and it was a little embarrassing."
All in good fun. The yelling and screaming that Thorne looks forward to are those of orange-cladded fans when the Illini are on the court this season. He has yet to play a game at the State Farm Center -- a place he saw in the midst of makeover renovations when he took his official visit in April 2015.
The Illini program is going through its own renovation and restoration, but as the pieces come together between now and November, the team will have a look that could open some eyes.
"I'm excited for our team to show everyone everywhere -- even people that doubt us and have negative things to say," Thorne said. "I'm anxious, but I try not to get overanxious about it. You got to go step-by-step. You can't get ahead of yourself, and I don't want our team to do that. The main thing is that I'm excited to show people how good we're going to be this year."