Mike Thorne, Jr.'s physical presence will wreak havoc on opposing defenses

By Eli Schwadron

Mike Thorne Jr. stood in the mid-post with his knees bent and right arm raised high, calling for the rock. Aaron Jordan lobbed the ball over Thorne’s right shoulder. In one fell swoop, the man affectionately known as “Big Mike” to his teammates caught the ball on the block, power-dribbled to the middle of the paint and flushed with authority over Maverick Morgan.

And-one, count the bucket.

The one-handed rim-rattler was just one of many impressive plays Thorne made Oct. 25 at the ILLINI ALL-IN basketball scrimmage. Through three eight-minute periods, the 22-year-old graduate transfer from University of North Carolina-Charlotte displayed an array of moves that make up his polished post-game.

Drop-steps. Left-handed mini-hooks. Offensive boards. Big Mike had everything going en route to 15 points and 15 rebounds on 6-for-10 shooting in front of 300 people at Ubben Practice Facility.

Perhaps the most dangerous weapon in Thorne’s arsenal is his ability to use either hand around the basket. Fellow front-courter Michael Finke said Thorne’s ambidextrous tendencies are going to cause problems for opposing players.

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“A lot of guys you can cut them off left shoulder,” Finke said. “But Big Mike, you cut off his left shoulder and he just turns around (over his right shoulder) and uses his left hand. It’s a nightmare for defenders.”

At 6-foot-11, 270 pounds, Thorne adds a physical presence that’s been lacking at the center position during head coach John Groce’s first three seasons with the program. He possesses a unique combination of finesse and power down low; his quick feet allow him to re-position for a better shot, and then he uses his strength to finish with contact.

Groce said the team will play inside-out, looking to get Thorne the ball early and often. He’ll demand double teams and different defensive schemes, opening up the floor for other players to spot up or penetrate. In the past, Groce’s Illinois teams have relied first and foremost on the outside shot.

“Offensively, he gives us a little bit of a different dimension down there in the post,” Groce said. “He’s unlike anyone we’ve had over the four years.”

That’s high praise for a newcomer.

Thorne played three seasons at UNC-Charlotte. Last season, the Fayetteville, North Carolina, native played the best basketball of his collegiate career, putting up 10.1 points per game and 7.3 rebounds on 53 percent shooting. Big Mike averaged 26.1 minutes per game and posted nearly one block per outing.

Playing well in Conference USA is one thing. Thorne is well-aware that the Big Ten is a different animal.

“Coaches have stressed increasing my IQ of the game and increasing my conditioning level,” Thorne said. “Basically just keeping up with the pace and adjusting to a higher level of play in the Big Ten.”

Thorne is preparing to take on the steepest competition of his life, and his touches are increasing.

“This is probably the most I’ve gotten the ball in my life, and I came from a mid-major, so it’s surprising that I’m getting the ball more here than I did in the past,” he said. “I’m happy about it. You can’t complain about that if the coach is getting you the ball.”

Off the court, Thorne said he’s adjusting nicely to the new school and the new surroundings.

“There’s so much love around here,” he said. “I get love from my teammates and coaches. It’s a really close-knit family.”

Big Mike is now officially a part of the Illinois basketball family, which extends across the state’s 60,000 square miles and beyond. When Thorne first arrived on campus, starting shooting guard Malcolm Hill told his new roommate about the importance of putting on an Illini uniform.

“I don’t think he realizes how many Illinois basketball fans there are in the area,” Hill said. “I tried to tell him literally everywhere you go, somebody’s watching, or they know who you are.”

Thorne was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes at the age of five. He said the disease affects his ability to train properly at times, but he has never used diabetes as an excuse.

“It’s not that hard to control … you just have to check (your blood sugar) before you work out,” he said.

Thorne is expected to fill the void at the center position left by Nnanna Egwu, who earned All-Big Ten Defensive honors as a senior in 2014-15. Egwu went undrafted in June but latched on with the Orlando Magic for summer league, only to be waived after playing in five preseason games.

Egwu’s starting spot will go to Thorne, but their styles are completely different. Egwu was a defensive stopper who could guard multiple positions; he was more of a power forward in a center’s body. Egwu showed flashes in the low post, but his best offensive attribute was a consistent midrange jumper, which stretched the floor.

Thorne’s jump shot is suspect, and he may struggle from the free throw line. But he has exhibited a much more advanced back-to-the-basket skillset.

“Egwu and Thorne are two totally different players — in Egwu, you had a really good defensive player. And with Thorne you have a monster inside on the offensive end,” Finke said. “So adding Big Mike to the lineup helps us a ton. He’s a threat down low that we can really use.”

Even Egwu, who was on hand for the Orange and Blue scrimmage, has taken notice of Thorne’s proficiency around the rim.

“They’ve got to double-team him. One-on-one, no one’s going to guard him. No one’s going to stop him. The only way you can stop him is he misses a shot,” Egwu said. “You’re going to have to double-team him, and if you have a team full of great shooters and slashers, that’s going to open up the game for him.”

But there is still work to be done.

“We’re trying to teach (Thorne) the defensive system, because in comparison to Nnanna, (Egwu) knew Groce’s system for way longer,” Hill said. “Thorne is new to it. But I think he’s getting better with it.”

Thorne will be tasked with guarding some of the most talented big men in the country, including Maryland’s Diamond Stone, Indiana’s Thomas Bryant and Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan — assuming he gets cleared to play by the NCAA.

As a result, Thorne will need his conditioning to be up to par so he can sustain his high-energy play throughout an entire season. According to Hill, Thorne has been doing extra running and cardiovascular drihlls to sustain his high-energy play throughout the season.

“(Thorne) works out probably just as hard as me,” Hill said. “He’s not lazy at all. He knows the hard work it’ll take to be a good basketball player, and I think he’s accomplishing that.”

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