Mike Thorne is a BIG bodied transfer from Charlotte, checking in at 6’10” and 270lbs. He averaged 10.1 ppg and 7.3 rpg last season in Charlotte, so he’s produced at the D1 level and would seem to be fully capable of solving an otherwise significant hole for the Illini. Thorne doesn’t have to be a 20/10 guy to make a major impact for this team…in fact, if he just posted numbers akin to those he put up last season, that would be A-OK by Groce. His presence means that you put less pressure on guys like Morgan and Finke for next season, you have a rebounder and occasional post scoring threat on the floor, and you have a defensive space eater in the middle as well. This was a big get for Groce…major programs like Kansas were very much in the mix for Thorne and Illinois sealed the deal. He’ll help quite a bit.
Jalen Coleman-Lands is a 6’4″ combo guard from Indiana who was highly regarded coming out of HS. He has a reputation as a shooter but may need to work on consistency from deep in order to max out his offensive impact. THey also think he can be effective in using his handle and athleticism to get to the rim and be a finisher there. He’s not considered to be quite ready to handle major minutes on the ball but they think he could mature into an option at the 1 over time. Given Illinois’ talent on the wing with Hill and Nunn, I don’t see JCL starting as a freshman but I’d expect significant minutes in a rotation role.
Aaron Jordan is another 6’4″ freshman guard who has some perimeter ability, enough that many think he can help immediately. I think he’ll likely be in competition with Austin for reserve minutes on the wing. He’s reportedly a little less versatile than Coleman-Lands in that he’s not seen as a combo guard but more of a pure wing, so that restricts his role a little bit. The negatives are the usual ones for young players…needs to add strength and get better defensively. I’d guess he stands a reasonable shot of earning some time based on his shot.
DJ Williams is a 6’7″ forward out of Simeon High in Chicago who is also highly regarded, completing what is likely Groce’s best class to date. He’s got some inside/outside skills and it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that he could be a guy they see as eventually filling a similar role to the one Hill currently occupies. For now, expect that he’ll see more time as an athletic 3/4 with a greater ability to help immediately inside the arc. Williams is seen as a guy who has a scorer’s mentality but that’ll need to be balanced with judicious shot selection, something which can be a problem for younger players.
As mentioned, Illinois is still heavily in pursuit of Villanova grad transfer point guard Dylan Ennis. He’s down to three schools and is visiting them all this week (the Illini are up on Friday). If Illinois lands him it might make me inclined to bump them up a spot or so but likely not enough to get into my top 3-4 range. He would definitely be great insurance for Abrams though. Ennis isn’t a superstar but he did average 10ppg and had a 2:1 assist to TO ratio, and he’s also a proven jumpshooter, something neither Abrams nor Tate can claim to be.
OVERALL – I think Groce can and should get back to the Tournament after a two year absence with this group. Normally, losing a guy who contributed so much the way Rice did would be seen as a blow but in this instance, there’s thought that Illinois may be better without him, as their core guys seemed to play better in his absence. I like Hill and Nunn a great deal as focal points of an offense. Both guys create matchup difficulties due to the combination of physical size and skill sets.
Thorne was a major addition. I don’t think he’s likely to be an All Big Ten player but he’s a credible big body in a conference suddenly filled with a lot of those. If he hadn’t come on board, Illinois would have major questions inside. Now it’s not an issue. He allows them to matchup physically with anybody in the league and he might even give them a bit more offensive production on the blocks than they got from Egwu, who wasn’t really a pure post player on offense the way Thorne seems to be.
I also like their freshman class. All three guys were highly regarded, all seem to have a good combination of skills, athleticism and length and should be capable of playing at least some kind of role right away. Over time, all three would seem to have a chance to develop into major impact players but for now they’ll improve Illinois’ depth and give Groce viable options off his bench.
Ennis would be major icing on the cake at point guard but as long as Abrams is reasonably healthy by October, I don’t think that position is a major problem. Obviously Ennis can do more on his own offensively than the two guys Illinois already has but this is not a team without weapons. To me, the primary need is to have a guy capable of getting shots for others and defending and Abrams can do that (Tate can as well to some degree), plus Abrams is an energy guy, something they can use.
This is a good looking team on paper. Groce should have the pieces to play the more wide open offensive style he prefers and he’s got better depth and interior potential than he’s ever had in his C/U tenure. Illinois is a threat to finish higher than this and definitely seems to be an NCAA caliber team. They need to get better defensively and make sure that all the pieces blend well together to finish higher than this, though…those things have not been givens in recent years.