Jeremy Werner

Fearsome front line figures to lift Illini during 2016-17 season

For the first time in a long time, the Illini's strength lies in the post

CHAMPAIGN - “The deepest Illinois post rotation since …”?

That was the question recently posed to long-time Illinois basketball spokesman Derrick Burson, and he didn’t take long to answer.

Burson, who has covered Illini basketball for the Division of Intercollegiate sports information department since 2000, quickly referred to the 2000-01 team that featured Marcus Griffin (11.3 ppg, 6.0 rpg), Brian Cook (11.2 ppg, 6.1 rpg), Robert Archibald (7.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg), Lucas Johnson (5.0 ppg, 3.3 rpg) and Damir Krupalija (4.8 ppg, 3.9 rpg). Add Sergio McClain (7.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg) to mix and the Illini featured one of the most fearsome, versatile and tough front courts in the country. Add superstar point guard Frank Williams to the mix, and it’s no surprise that Bill Self’s 2001 Illini won the Big Ten championship and advanced to the Elite Eight.

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Expectations aren’t quite so high for the 2016-17 season, which tips off against Southeast Missouri 8 p.m. Friday at the State Farm Center. After all, Illinois has missed three straight NCAA tournaments entering what seems to be a make-or-break season for fifth-year head coach John Groce.

But Groce has by far his best post rotation and likely the deepest, most versatile Illini front court since that 2001 season. A program that has been far too perimeter-centric for most of the past decade now plays from the inside-out.

“From an interior perspective, it’s as big as we’ve ever been,” Groce said. “We’ve got guys that have a gift to score in and out of the basket. Certainly there will be an emphasis that you will see that might be maybe a little bit different than the first four years due to our personnel that we’re making an effort to throw the ball inside. That’s a real point of emphasis. We have some guys with some gifts there.”

Gifts that will give Groce his best chance for Big Ten success.

Depth and versatility

The Illini feature two of the best low-post scorers in the Big Ten. Mike Thorne Jr. earned a sixth-year of eligibility via a hardship waiver after suffering a knee injury that limited him to eight games last year. Thorne Jr. isn’t always efficient (47.3 percent shooting last season), but he is a bull in the post (12.9 ppg) and one of the best rebounders in the country (8.5 rpg). Illinois brought back Throne Jr. slowly during the offseason, fearing pushing him too hard could re-aggravate the big man’s knee.

The Illini may have the ability to keep Thorne’s minutes lower due to Maverick Morgan’s late-season surge as a junior. The 6-foot-10, highly-skilled big man over his last 12 games last season averaged 12.0 points and 5.2 rebounds. He carried that momentum into the offseason and exhibition schedule (33 points in two games).

The return of Thorne Jr. allows redshirt sophomore Michael Finke (7.5 ppg, 3.7 rpg last season) to move back to his natural position, the 4. As a redshirt freshman last season, Finke was forced to play the five and got pushed around during Big Ten play (31.3 percent shooting, 5.1 ppg, and 4.2 rpg). But he’s added strength and confidence and should find more shooting room thanks to Thorne and Morgan. The biggest X-factor in the post is the return of sophomore Leron Black, who missed all but  seven games last season due to a torn meniscus. Even when he played, Black looked a shell of his tenacious, bouncy self. The former top-50 recruit has received rave reviews for his offseason performance, but he won’t join the team until the fifth game of the regular season (Nov. 21 versus Winthrop) due to a suspension stemming from a guilty plea to misdemeanor aggravated assault.

Add All-Big Ten candidate Malcolm Hill (who moves to his more natural position at the three after playing the four most of his career), bouncy athlete D.J. Williams and eventually redshirt freshman transfer Kipper Nichols (who should be eligible to play by the Dec. 17 game against BYU) and the Illini look loaded up front.

“I think we got the best front court in the country, honestly," Thorne Jr. said. "We all bring something different to the table. We’re all unique in our own way. None of our games are similar. We’re all different. When the scouting reports come around, you’re not going to be able to key in on one of us. There’s four of us. You got four dogs out there. Four junkyard dogs.”

The Illini's depth and versatility changes the way they play -- for the better.

'Good problem to have'

According to, Illinois has finished in the bottom-15 among Division I teams (345-351 teams) in percentage of total field goals at the rim. During the last two seasons, Illinois finished with the second-lowest percentage of field-goal attempts at the rim (22.0 percent in 2015-16 and 21.5 percent in 2014-15). Also last season, Illinois had the 15th highest percentage of two-point jumper shots (39.6 percent).

That'll change this season.

“Plays are ending with more post-ups than jumpers right now, which is a good thing for this team,” said Illini assistant Dustin Ford, who coaches the post players. “I think throughout the year that will change. Teams will try to take it away, and we’ll have to find other ways to attack. But right now, this is the first team we’ve had since we’ve been here that we can post the ball with multiple guys that command double teams, that can pass. We’ve had some guys, but we haven’t had four to five of them.”

Illinois has shown "horns" sets with two bigs on the elbows for ball screens as well as more high-low sets with one of its bigs throwing an entry pass to another. The Illini can use several  different combinations with their depth too.

Yet, the Illini have had to adjust the way they're playing, especially the guards. With its newfound depth, Illinois is pushing a much faster tempo. But Groce also is pushing his players to get more and more -- and more! -- post touches. The Illini wings also must learn how to play off those paint touches.

“We got six to seven guys who we can throw it to long- or low-post to get one on the rim or get fouled," Ford said. "That’s a good problem to have. We got to be able to do that and still have floor spacing though, make sure we give guys space to make plays and make enough shots to make people honest.”

Adding Thorne Jr. (an elite defensive rebounder) and Black (who has owned the James Augustine rebounding practice jersey most of the offseason) also should help the Illini take better ownership of the glass.

During conference play last season, Illinois finished last among Big Ten teams in offensive rebounding percentage and eighth in defensive rebounding percentage.

“You better see a difference rebounding, OK? That’s my expectation," Groce said. "We want to rebound the ball better. We should be a little bit more potent inside, scoring and finishing with that size.”

Big factors for B1G success

The Illini are big, long and much stronger in the post (strength coach Adam Fletcher especially added power to Finke and Morgan this offseason). But outside of Black, there isn't much athleticism in the group. And when Morgan is considered the post's best defender, that's not exactly a strength of the team.

"I would say more defensive than offensive having to tweak some things to make sure you cover up for being a little bit bigger as opposed to playing four guards," Ford said. 

Since that 2001 Big Ten championship team, Illinois has featured some talented bigs. James Augustine, Jack Ingram and Roger Powell helped the most talented trio of guards in Illini history make the 2005 NCAA Championship game. Shaun Pruitt was a talented interior scorer. Both Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale are among the top-28 scorers in Illini history. Meyers Leonard had one special (individual) season before the Portland Trailblazers selected him in the first round of the 2012 NBA Draft.

But the Illini's current post rotation could be deeper and better than any during the last decade and a half. It could be one of the best in the Big Ten.

It could be the main reason Illinois breaks a three-year NCAA Tournament drought.

“The fact of us being able to play big makes us different, makes us better on the backboard," Ford said. "Hopefully, it will make us more efficient as well. They got to become better screeners, better defenders right now. They all can score. I tell them, ‘That’s great. You guys can put it in the hole. But you guys got to be able to screen. You got to be able to guard somebody.’ It’s going to be interesting to see once it all shakes out.”

Breaking down Illini's bigs

Outlook: Thorne Jr. tends to run hot and cold. He can have great nights followed by nights where he's a bit sloppy and ineffective. But Thorne Jr. made a bigger impact on Illinois last season than any player not named Malcolm Hill -- but it only last eight games due to injury. His presence completely changes how Illinois plays. He only shot 48 percent last season, but he's a big-bodied low post scorer who easily gains position deep in the post has a left- and right-handed hook shot. He's also an elite -- not great, but elite -- rebounder on both ends of the floor. He's a possession extender on offense and a possession ender on defender. Thorne Jr. doesn't move up and down the floor that quickly and isn't a strong individual defender, though his presence is felt in the paint. Given his injury history and his diabetes, the Illini likely will keep him between 18-25 minutes per game.

Quote: "To be honest, this (recovering from knee surgery) has probably been one of the hardest things I've done in my life basketball-wise. It's been a tough task. At this point right now, I'm not the player I want to be, and I still got a long way to go. But nothing in life is easy, and everything worth having in life you got to work for it. My conditioning still has a ways to go and my knowledge of the game. But I feel like if I keep doing a good job listening to the coaches, my teammates have been really confident in me ... I just need to keep improving in practice." -- Mike Thorne Jr.

Outlook: Ten months ago, Morgan's future looked uncertain and bleak. The junior barely contributed during his career and had shown little improvement. He was pushed around in the paint and skilled but unconfident on offense. Then, out of nowehere, Morgan finished with 14 points and seven rebounds in an overtime win at Minnesota -- and his career arc took a big uptick. With a newfound confidence, the Ohio native turned into a quality Big Ten big man and continued that progression this offseason. Buy stock in him now. Morgan is one of the Illini's better players and one of their most consistent. He's highly skilled with a short baseline jumper that rarely misses the bottom of the net, a hook shot and over-the-shoulder jumper. He's effective in the pick-and-pop game and is a pretty skilled passer. Morgan isn't a great rebounder but he's solid. He's gained strength and looks tougher, though not a beast like Thorne Jr. He's the best team defender in the post but not one who will make big-time blocks.

Quote: “He’s been great, to be honest. He’s probably been one of our most consistent guys so far. He’s played really well, been real efficient making shots and rebounded it better. Then he’s always been a really good team defender in terms of seeing stuff. He’s got pretty good IQ. But him getting that experience, getting that confidence to see what he can do was really beneficial for him.” - Illini assistant Dustin Ford

Outlook: Finke looked phenomenal during non-conference play last season. Teams had no film on Finke, so they didn't know his high level of skill and ability to stretch beyond the arc and knock down shots. But Big Ten teams shut him down and attacked him with brute physicality. Finke used the offseason to pack on even more strength. It's hard to believe he's the same person as the skinny kid who showed up at Illinois two years ago -- and not only due to the long locks. You can see why Bo Ryan liked Finke so much as a recruit. He fits the mold of Wisconsin big men. He's a highly-skilled player -- whose passing might be better than his plus shooting -- who will continue to gain strength, and thus become more versatile on offense. Finke isn't a strong defender and struggles to keep opponents in front of him on that end. But he looks ready for another big step forward. He's a big part of the Illini's present and an even bigger part of their future.

Quote:“He’s been great. The weight room was good for him. Fletch did a good job with him. He put on some extra weight. He made him a little bit more explosive, better moving, shooting it better. Once again, it’s hard, you take a redshirt year and sit out a year and then come back and play. He gained a ton of experience with that. He’s been really good.” - Illini assistant Dustin Ford

Outlook: It's almost difficult to remember what Black looks like as a player. The former top-50 recruit is a top athlete and tenacious competitor. He showed flashes as a freshman in 2014-15 but the positives (rebounding, mid-range jumper) often were overshadowed by the negatives (insanely high foul rate, dirty fouls). Black appeared ready for a sophomore leap before last season, and then he underwent meniscus surgery. He returned early in the season but was a shell of himself and was shut down for the season. Early reviews are that Black is tearing it up at practice, especially on the glass. Black is the biggest X-factor for the Illini this season. He gives the Illini an athleticism and tenacity they otherwise lack and need during Big Ten play. He also adds another scoring threat in the mid range. Teammates and coaches have raved about his maturity and newfound appreciation for his opportunity since his spring arrest. Black is a foundation piece for Groce, who is hoping Black proves himself as such this season.

Quote:“Great motor, rebounding. We got to get him guarding without fouling a little bit better, Beyond that, he’s doing what he does. He makes two-point field goals and he grabs every rebound.” - Illini assistant Dustin Ford

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