Groce hosts recruit after Illini hoops scrimmage

Illinois’ head coach John Groce instructs his team during the game against Kennesaw State at State Farm Center on Dec. 27, 2014. The Illini won 93-45.

By Alex Roux

Just when you thought you could shift your attention to this year’s Illini basketball team, head coach John Groce arranged an 11th-hour recruiting visit.

My man Derek Piper over at dropped a Twitter bomb Sunday evening, reporting that former Tulane commit Kipper Nichols was on the Illinois campus for an official visit. Originally from Lakewood, Ohio, Nichols is a 6-foot-6 wing who was granted his release from Tulane in September.

According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Nichols left the Tulane program for “personal reasons.” The New Orleans Advocate reported that Nichols never enrolled for the fall semester at Tulane.

At the earliest, Nichols wouldn’t be able to enroll until the spring semester of 2016 at his next school since fall classes are well underway. He would then have to sit out a full year due to NCAA transfer rules. Piper said if Nichols were to enroll at Illinois for the upcoming semester, he would be eligible to play in January of 2017.

Nichols is a well-molded 215 pounds, and has above-average athleticism even at the college level. He was a three-star prospect according to, and held offers from Maryland, Clemson, Butler and Nebraska, among others. Nichols would have to compete with several other wings at Illinois, including Jalen Coleman-Lands and Aaron Jordan. Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill would be nearing the end of their careers by the time Nichols could potentially suit up for the Illini.

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News of Nichols’ visit came just hours after the Illini completed their ILLINI ALL-IN scrimmage Sunday, which has been a nice fill-in for the Orange and Blue scrimmage while State Farm Center undergoes renovations.

Held at Ubben Practice Facility in front of a few hundred fans, the scrimmage was spread over three 8-minute periods. Groce shuffled his dwindling roster of able players at each intermission as four injured Illini looked on. Tracy Abrams, Leron Black, Nunn and Coleman-Lands all were on the sideline, and Coleman-Lands was the only one suited up in practice gear.

Nunn, Black and Coleman-Lands are all expected back at some point this season, with Coleman-Lands’ anticipated return coming soonest in early November. With those three out, eyes scoured Sunday’s scrimmage for contributors at the shooting guard and power forward positions.

Jordan and redshirt sophomore walk-on Alex Austin showed some spark, scoring nine points apiece on the afternoon. I expect Jordan to have a chance to crack the starting lineup at shooting guard until either Coleman-Lands or Nunn is close to 100 percent, and Austin to get a good amount of minutes off the bench behind him.

All nine of Jordan’s points came on 3-pointers, and Austin’s solid play was highlighted by a fast-break flush over senior walk-on Mike LaTulip.

Redshirt freshman Michael Finke was impressive offensively filling Black’s spot at the 4, scoring 12 points and passing phenomenally from the high post. Finke’s already the best frontcourt ball-handler, passer and shooter the Illini have. His offense will get him on the floor this year, and his ability on defense will determine if he stays on it.

The big story of the afternoon — and I mean big in every sense of the word — was Mike Thorne. The senior graduate transfer is a load at 6-foot-11, 270 pounds, and he imposed his will in the post Sunday with 15 points and 15 rebounds.

Mike Tisdale and Nnanna Egwu, Thorne is not. He won’t stray far from the basket and he probably won’t make more than half his free throws, but he’ll devour rebounds and muscle the ball in the basket all season long. Illinois hasn’t had a center move this well since Shaun Pruitt at the end of last decade, and it looks to me that Thorne uses his body even better than Pruitt.

Not only was Thorne perfectly positioned for rebounds, he was able to turn off either shoulder to shed his defender and attack the rim. The play of the day came when Thorne received the ball on the left block and pivoted, letting Maverick Morgan’s weight betray him as he finished through a foul with a one-handed dunk.

Malcolm Hill is still the star of this team, but the Illini will rely heavily on Thorne until Nunn and Black provide relief.

Even then, let the big man eat.??

Alex is a senior in AHS. 

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