Tate: Groce's bunch at last in public eye ... for 24 minutes

Tate: Groce's bunch at last in public eye ... for 24 minutes

As the basketball injuries multiplied, angst had grown to high levels throughout Illini Nation.

Even life on the NCAA bubble appeared to be overly optimistic.

That changed Sunday. The media joined more than 300 fans in viewing John Groce’s latest creation, and the word will now spread that:

(1) Huge Mike Thorne Jr. is more athletically rugged than we could have imagined, (2) Michael Finke has the offensive skills to play at this level and (3) Aaron Jordan is a deadeye with a promising future.

That new info is based on a 24-minute sighting at Ubben ... my first time ever to see Thorne, second view of Finke since high school, and second opportunity ever to watch Jordan.

A shortened scrimmage is much too brief for a lasting conclusion, but stands the only glimpse we’ll be allowed before the exhibition opener with UI-Springfield on Nov. 8.

It’s unfortunate more in-depth and perhaps contradictory information can’t be provided. We all realize what we see today might be different tomorrow. This is particularly true of freshmen.

Times have changed

But Groce, evolving from the Thad Matta tree, has taken a path of secrecy over openness. This policy coincides with the advent of social media that changed our ability to access information. Coaches have concluded that too much of it is irresponsible.
Looking back, from the Doug Mills-Harry Combes era and up through Bruce Weber, a small group of reporters was not only welcomed to basketball practice but sometimes (in years past) invited for drinks and discussion afterwards.

Lou Henson’s popularity, which led to the State Farm Center court being named in his honor, stems in no small part from his innate openness and association with fans and media. All of his practices were open. Lon Kruger, Bill Self and Weber had open-door policies with only minor limitations.

But here we are in 2015-16 with transfers and freshmen joining a thinned squad that has been concealed from view ... unless you made the European trip or were part of the high school coaches’ clinic.

As it stands, no Illini basketball season in 100 years has debuted with the fervent followers having so little understanding of what to expect. And the team will be carefully guarded for two more weeks because NCAA rules require next weekend’s practice game vs. Xavier to be conducted in privacy.

Falling into place?

With the 6-11, 270-pound Thorne replacing Nnanna Egwu at center, the outlook appears altered on both ends of the court. The Illini will join Purdue as an inside-out, pivot-oriented operation.

Egwu was an agile defender who never averaged more than 6.9 points in three seasons as a regular. Before him, Meyers Leonard and Mike Tisdale were lean 7-footers with touch and jump-shooting tendencies.

Thorne resembles their bull-like predecessor, Shaun Pruitt, who averaged 11.4 points in 2007 and 12.6 in 2008. The UI’s new transfer from Charlotte is even more explosive, and changes the Illini offense with his Sumo-like ability to root deep and score with either hand.

Groce has placed new emphasis on getting the ball inside and, according to Thorne, it’s happening more frequently these days than when he averaged 10.1 points at Charlotte last season. He dominated UI junior Maverick Morgan in Sunday’s scrimmage, outscoring Morgan 15-2 and garnering 15 rebounds.

Thorne is now the post around which the offense will revolve.

When Leron Black returns at power forward, the Illini will possess a strong 1-2 rebounding duo. Add versatile team leader Malcolm Hill at small forward, and the Illini front line has quality punch ... as long as those three stay healthy and avoid foul trouble.

This is reported after 24 minutes of inconclusive viewing, and with the knowledge that a great deal can change very soon, particularly if Jalen Coleman-Lands and Black make their hoped-for returns next month.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.

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Illinois88 wrote on October 27, 2015 at 7:10 am

Really???? - Mike Thorne had good results playing against Maverick Morgan. Unbelievable that this could be used to make conclusions about what will happen against legitimate competition.

jturner wrote on October 27, 2015 at 11:10 am

A problem with small samples.  They tend to raise expectations.  My guess is that this is one of the reasons Groce keeps practices closed and disappoints Loren so much.  The comment on Jordan being a sharpshooter bothers me the most.  Will he now be doomed to joint the ranks of the previous can't miss practice shooters - Starks, Cosby, Ekey, Griffey, and Legion - who never achieved consistent accuracy in real games.