Marcus Lovett Commits to St. Johns, Illinois Misses Another Recruit

By: Grant Labedz

Late last night, highly-touted point guard Marcus Lovett finally decided where he will play ball next season, and it won’t be for the orange and blue. The Chicago product from Morgan Park high school committed to St. John’s after months of speculation on where he might end up.

Though Illinois looked to be the front runner in the recruiting process a few months back, the Red Storm snatched him up. Lovett expressed his interest in remaining in his home state back in March, giving Illinois the nod as the favorite, but Lovett delayed his decision date and opened himself back up to all of his options.

Despite firing Steve Lavin, St. Johns was able to get Lovett thanks in part to the reent hiring of former NBA hall-of-famer Chris Mullin. Lovett undoubtedly saw the Mullin hire as a perfect opportunity to compete under a legendary player and now coach. “I just think that he could get me to where I want to be,” said Lovett when asked about coach Mullin.

For the Fighting Illini, the missed recruit only yields more frustration. It seemed as if the Illini would get an early commitment from Lovett, but he quickly lost interest. A recent tweet from Lovett listed his “top schools in order” in which Illinois was in third, and to no surprise, St. Johns was at the top. Although Lovett isn’t the most highly sought after player in the country by any means, Illinois is still unable to fill the temporary void at point guard.

Groce has already looked to 2016 for a replacement point guard when senior Tracy Abrams graduates. With plenty of offers on the board, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Illinois land one, but it’s difficult to know for sure given recent luck.

The frustrating part of recent recruiting for John Groce and the Illinois basketball program is how close they’ve been to landing some huge recruits. Players like Cliff Alexander (let’s not talk about it), Jalen Brunson, and fifth year transfer Dylan Ennis all had the Fighting Illini in the crosshairs yet opted to play somewhere else.

Maybe it’s only a matter of time until the Fighting Illini score a huge recruit, or maybe there’s one right underneath our fingertips. Mike Thorne (fifth-year transfer from Charlotte) is new to the program and is already expected to play a huge role next season. Jalen Coleman-Lands is one of the highest ranked recruits the Illini have landed in awhile, so you can’t count them out just yet. Have a good season or two, and Illinois could start landing players left and right.

Dylan Ennis to Oregon, Illinois Looks Elsewhere

By: Grant Labedz

Highly-touted point guard and Villanova graduate transfer Dylan Ennis announced that he would be attending Oregon for his final year as a collegiate basketball player. While Illinois was certainly in the hunt for Ennis, Oregon seemed to be the favorite all along. He should blend nicely with the system and fill a major void at point guard that the Ducks have. Illinois and Baylor were the other two schools that Ennis considered before making his final decision.

Unfortunately for the Fighting Illini, a huge question mark still remains at the point guard position. Senior Tracy Abrams will lead the point with junior Jaylon Tate backing him up off the bench. Both have their ups and downs. Abrams has been a fairly consistent shooter with the ability to drive and dish, but he often comes up short as a leader and fails to deliver during crunch time. Jaylon Tate is an exceptional passer, but his inability to shoot the ball makes him an offensive liability. Ennis would’ve been the perfect piece to the point guard puzzle, but the Illini will have to look elsewhere for next season.

With one more scholarship to fill, Illinois is certainly looking to add another point guard to its roster. Marcus Lovett has been a top target for some time now, but his decision seems to be leaning more towards St. Johns then it is Illinois. Lovett, when asked about St. John’s, said that he would love to play under a veteran hall-of-famer like Chris Mullin. While Lovett is certainly fond of the Fighting Illini, I have a hunch that we’ll see him playing for the Red Storm next season.

Recently, Illinois has been looking into a senior transfer from UT Arlington to play next season. Johnny Hill averaged 9.6 points per game last season and would be immediately eligible. He visited the Illini yesterday and is also being recruited by Baylor and Purdue among others. Although the Illini could definitely use a point guard this season, they should be able to get by riding Abrams. That being said, having another man for depth never hurts, and a post-season run could depend on it.

Illinois Target and Villanova Transfer Dylan Ennis to Visit Champaign

By: Grant Labedz

One of college basketball’s most highly sought-after transfers Dylan Ennis recently narrowed his list down to three schools: Baylor, Illinois, and Oregon. After making a visit to Waco on Thursday, Ennis is coming to Champaign to get a better look at the Illinois program. Ennis will then visit Eugene on Saturday to round out his official visits.

Last time Illinois had an official visit from a transfer, he committed right away. That was Mike Thorne Jr, who said he didn’t need to see any other schools to make his final decision. Illinois may not be so lucky with Ennis.

Ennis has not released an official favorite, but it seems that Oregon may be slightly ahead of Baylor and Illinois. It seems as if Ennis wanting to play the true pount guard position would work best with the Ducks. That being said, all three teams seem to be alive in the recruitment.

If Illinois were able to get Dylan Ennis off the transfer market, it would be the second graduating transfer that it would add to its roster next season. The point guard position is the last piece to the puzzle for next season’s team, and Ennis could be that missing piece.

Groce, Illinois Introduce Mike Thorne Jr.

This Thursday, head coach John Groce finally had the opportunity to officially introduce the newest member of the Fighting Illini, Charlotte transfer center Mike Thorne Jr. After declaring his intent to sign with Illinois this past Saturday, Thorne put pen to paper this morning, signing a tender for financial aid to enroll at U of I.

While many on social media have already shared their thoughts on this key signing, Coach Groce was able to speak publicly about his new 6-11, 270 lbs center for the first time.

“We’ve certainly had some guys with some size that have brought different things to the table,” Groce said. “This is the first time that we’ve got a guy that size that wants to play with his back to the basket, likes to play with his back to the basket, and is gifted at playing with his back to the basket.”

While Thorne will only be eligible for one year, his presence in the post will hopefully be a huge difference maker for the Illini. Last year at Charlotte, he averaged 10.1 PPG and 7.3 RPG. In the interviews Thursday, Coach Groce raved about the big man’s size, as Illinois has lacked an offensive force in the paint during his tenure. This also, as he noted, opens the doors for many other offensive sets.

“The one thing about (our) roster … that excites me is that we have the option to play big ball or to play small ball if we want,” Groce said. “That’s a great luxury to have as a coach, to be able to adapt like that within the course of a game.”

Thorne will join Maverick Morgan, Michael Finke and Darius Paul in the Illini front court. More than likely, Thorne will start at the 5 with Morgan and Finke coming off the bench. This newfound depth will be helpful down the stretch of the season especially following the loss of Austin Colbert to transfer.

Groce also discussed the rigorous offseason plan he has for Thorne in terms of getting into tip top shape.

“He [Thorne] wants to be in the best shape of his life,” Groce said, possibly insinuating a weight loss program for Thorne over the summer. Regardless, it’ll be great to have a big man in any form.

Welcome Mike Thorne Jr. Its your time to shine.

Marcus Lovett or Dylan Ennis?

By: Grant Labedz

Illinois’ 2015-16 basketball roster is almost set. The addition of Mike Thorne from Charlotte means that John Groce has one open scholarship for next season. The Illini have two players who they’re looking to add to their roster: Villanova transfer Dylan Ennis and incoming freshman Marcus Lovett. Consequently, only one, if either, could play for Illinois next season.

Dylan Ennis recently trimmed his list to Oregon, Baylor, and yours truly, Illinois. He plans on visiting all three schools sometime next week, which means a final decision is looming in the coming weeks.

Marcus Lovett’s decision has been pushed back from its original date. Lovett was supposed to announce where he’d be going to school at the end of his high school basketball season, but he now awaits an ACT score to determine his eligibility. Illinois remains in the hunt for Lovett along with St. John’s, Memphis, and others.

Will Illinois get either player?

The Illini are guaranteed not to get both. With only one scholarship to fill, Groce would be in a predicament if both committed. But that won’t be a problem because both won’t commit. Ennis and Lovett alike are looking to get serious minutes running the point, and that won’t be possible for both players at the same school.

So could it be a matter of who commits first?

Absolutely. It seems as if Ennis might make a decision before Lovett, and whether or not Ennis decides on Illinois will have serious implications on where Lovett will want to go to school. If Ennis opts for Oregon or Baylor, then Lovett could see an open opportunity in Champagne. If Ennis were to commit, Illinois would be set for next season, and Lovett would look elsewhere.

Scenarios aside, who would Illinois want more?

It’s undeniable that right now, Ennis is the better player. With more experience and skill, the graduate transfer would likely have more of an immediate impact for the Fighting Illini. That being said, Ennis would only be with Illinois for one season, so program builders would rather have Lovett join the Fighting Illini.

Marcus Lovett may not get a lot of minutes behind senior point guard Tracy Abrams, but he would most likely be the starter as a sophomore. He’s received a lot of attention from a number of schools, but he’s not necessarily guaranteed to be a break-out star in college.

Either way, Illinois would be very fortunate to add another point guard to its roster. Both players would add to the program and set the Fighting Illini up for success in the coming season.

Villanova Transfer Considering Illinois

By: Grant Labedz

Illinois landed one of the biggest transfers on the market last weekend in big man Mike Thorne Jr. Now they’re looking to do it again with Villanova guard Dylan Ennis.

Ennis averaged 9.9 points per game with the Wildcats last season and will be immediately eligible to play his final season as a graduate transfer. After receiving a number of offers, Ennis will consider Illinois, Baylor, and Oregon.

Ennis is looking to play the true point guard position during his final season. Illinois’ void in that position makes Ennis a perfect fit for the Illini. Tracy Abrams comes back from an ACL injury but remains a question mark for next season. Jaylon Tate needs to enhance his shooting before taking on the role of starting point guard.

Dylan Ennis will visit all three schools next week before making his final decision. If Illinois is unable to land Ennis, they are still awaiting the decision of Marcus Lovett from the high school graduating class of 2015 as a key contributor.

Transfer Mike Thorne’s Impact on Illinois

If you didn’t hear, Charlotte transfer Mike Thorne recently committed to Illinois after receiving a multitude of offers from the nations’s best schools, including Kansas and Kentucky. Thorne committed to Illinois on an official visit last weekend. His 6’11” 270 lb. frame will provide Illinois a huge boost in the post in the absense of Nnanna Egwu.

Illinois was looking a little shaky in regards to post players when Austin Colbert announced that he’d transfer, but Thorne adds some huge depth down low. Thorne average just over 10 points and 7 rebounds per game last year for the 49ers and plays as a true center. Don’t believe me? He’s never taken a three point shot in his career.

Thorne will have a year of eligibility remaining, meaning that he will be with the Illini for one season. He will join Darius Paul as an incoming big man transfer. The two will undoubtedly give Illinois some power in the post.

Mike Thorne will likely start immediately for the Fighting Illini. He and Leron Black will get the bulk of the minutes down low, and Abrams, Hill, and Nunn will make up the backcourt.

Thorne may be the missing puzzle piece for the Illini going into next season. Could we see Illinois go dancing next year? This certainly helps.

Illinois in the Hunt: Possible Transfers for the Fighting Illini

By: Grant Labedz

Heading into the 2015-16 season, the Fighting Illini had one open scholarship spot, that is until Aaron Cosby elected to part ways with the University. Now Illinois is looking to fill its last two spots with a few players that are considering Illinois. Macrus Lovett is the preferred point guard recruit out of Morgan Park in Chicago, but his landing point is still a question mark. Illinois will now be looking to fill its remaining spots with eligible transfers.

John Groce certainly has the ability to reel in transfers as seen in the past few seasons at Illinois. Groce brought in Rayvonte Rice, Jon Ekey, Aaron Cosby, Ahmad Starks, and Darius Paul into the program. Some of Groce’s transfers have turned out better than others, but the sheer ability to attract experienced players to the program is a good sign for John Groce and company.

Now, there are a considerable number of player on the market looking for a new place to continue their college careers, and for the Fighting Illini, one of these players could be the difference maker for the program.

Dylan Ennis

Dylan Ennis may be the best transfer on the market right now, and if he were to come to Illinois, he could add considerable depth to the Illinois’ 2015-16 roster.

Ennis started his college career at Rice University before playing two seasons at Villanova. Averaging 9.9 points per and 3.5 assists per game, he could be a star point guard for the Fighting Illini who severely lacked in that area during the 2014-15 campaign. Ennis would have one year of eligibility remaining as a post-graduate transfer. Dylan Ennis is the brother of notable NBA point guard Tyler Ennis who’s playing for the Milwaukee Bucks.

Ennis scored 18 points against the Fighting Illini back in December during Villanova’s 73-59 victory in the Jimmy V. Classic. Were Ennis to transfer to Illinois, the Illini would be given another point guard to compete for the starting spot. Tracy Abrams and Dylan Ennis would be two senior point guards for the Illini. Ennis would certainly be a huge contributor to the Fighting Illini, but the biggest concern right now is a long-term point guard and front-court depth.

Mike Thorne Jr.

Mike Thorne Jr. is a 6’11” transfer from Charlotte who will be looking to finish up the final season of his career at a new school. Thorne averaged 10.1 points and 7.3 rebounds per game for the 49ers last season.

Illinois is among a plethora of schools expressing interest in the senior transfer, the most notable being Bill Self’s Kansas Jayhawks. Thorne is expected to visit Lawrence on May 1st if not sooner, but he’s also set to visit Champaign on the weekend of April 17th.

Thorne could be the answer to the ensuing question for the 2015-16 Illinois Basketball Team: who’s going to play the post? With the departure of Nnanna Egwu and his defensive presence, Illinois looks thin in the paint. As transfer Darius Paul will certainly help matters, he looks to play as more of a stretch 4. Maverick Morgan and Michael Finke are the two tallest players on the roster at 6’10”, but neither have shown the ability to be a consistent center just yet.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see Thorne end up a Jayhawk, but getting a visit in the books before Kansas is certainly a positive sign. If Thorne’s visit goes well enough, then the Illini could add some much needed depth to a team lacking in size.

Big Ten Tournament Preview: #8 Illinois vs. #9 Michigan

By: Grant Labedz

After two closely contested meetings this season, it is only fitting that these two teams meet one last time to prove themselves in the Big Ten Tournament. Illinois and Michigan first faced off this year for the Big Ten Conference Opener in Ann Arbor. After getting out to a double digit lead in the second half, Illinois looked to spoil Michigan’s Big Ten Home Opener, a game in which head football coach Jim Harbaugh gave his welcoming halftime speech. All of a sudden though, Michigan was able to get going from behind the arc, notably behind Aubrey Dawkins’ 6 three pointers. Michigan tied up the ball game, Illinois missed a final desperation shot, and the Wolverines ran away with the game in overtime.

Almost two months later, the Wolverines took a visit to the State Farm Center in Champaign and opened up a solid lead over the Illini in the second half. But it felt like déjà vu when the Illini made a run, chipped into Michigan’s 7 point lead, and forced overtime. Illinois was able to outscore its opponent by 12 in the extra session, and the two teams split the series on the season. The game in Champaign was the first for Illinois with Rayvonte Rice since early January, and the Wolverines were without Caris Levert and Derrick Walton Jr.

Nobody likes a tie, right? What’s better than seeing two teams that have gone to overtime twice against each other this season? A third overtime? We’ll just have to see how this one plays out.

Illinois is hoping to gain the edge in the series verses Michigan this year with an opening round win in the Big Ten Tournament. Illinois has won its last two opening round games in the Big Ten Tournament, and it will play in the first round 8-9 game for the fourth consecutive year. Last year’s Big Ten Tournament ended in the second round for the Fighting Illini with a loss to, who else, but Michigan. It was tightly contested throughout, and a last second floater by Tracy Abrams was short, leaving the Illini to contest in the NIT.

This year, Illinois finds itself in a similar position. According to Joe Lunardi, Illinois is one of the “Next Four Out” of the NCAA Tournament, meaning they are about 4 or 5 teams away from getting in. Illinois will certainly need a good showing in the Big Ten Tournament. Recently on ESPN, Lunardi said that he believes Illinois needs two wins in the Big Ten Tournament in order to be securely in the NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately for the Illini, a win over the Wolverines would mean a second round match up against the formidable, top-seeded Wisconsin Badgers.

Regardless of the second round match up, Illinois should look to win, and in convincing fashion, against the struggling Wolverines. Michigan will once again be without Caris Levert and Derrick Walton Jr, so Illinois should look to exploit the young guards. The Fighting Illini cannot be fooled by the play of Spike Albrecht and Aubrey Dawkins though, as those two can certainly light it up from behind the arc.

Illinois will certainly be playing for its life, so expect it to come out of the gates with toughness and effort. Groce criticized his team’s effort (with the exceptions of Egwu and Rice), in their team’s last outing against Purdue. Surely if the Illini want to go dancing, we will see everyone giving it their all at the United Center. Obviously the easiest way to get off the bubble is to win the Big Ten Tournament and receive an automatic bid, so the Fighting Illini should be playing to win it all. Regardless of what happens, it should be a good game and a better tournament.


Prediction: Illinois 72 – Michigan 64

Illinois Shuts Down in Second Half; Loses on the Road to Purdue

By: Grant Labedz

The Illini took a hopeful venture to Mackey Arena in need of a big win to bolster up a resume worthy of an NCAA Tournament bid. Currently one of Joe Lunardi’s “Next Four Out,” the Illini could not afford to lose this one on the road. Though the Fighting Illini played tough from tip to finish, they were unable to pull off the victory in West Lafayette, and as a result, the NCAA Tournament seems to be further away than ever for a team that has battled through suspensions and injuries all season long.

Illinois started the game in Mackey on a positive note, hitting from all over the court in the first half. Though AJ Hammons of Purdue scored the first bucket of the game, the Illini rattled off 13 unanswered points to take a double-digit lead over the Boilermakers. Rayvonte Rice hit his first four shots, including a step-back three pointer from the top of the key with the shot clock winding down.

Though the Boilermakers finally ended a 7 minute drought with two three point buckets, the Illini kept the foot on the accelerator and got out to a 22-10 lead with a monster dunk by Rayvonte Rice. Illinois would extend its lead all the way to 13 before the Boilermakers made their first run. Illinois slowly watched its double-digit lead dwindle as the Boilermakers finally got going. Purdue went on an 8-0 run to close the second half, and the Illini lead was down to 5 going into the break.

One of the biggest plays of the first half in Purdue’s favor was a steal and lay-up by P.J. Thompson. After receiving the inbound pass, Jaylon Tate walked right into his defender, Thompson, who ripped the ball right off his hands and finished with authority. Coach Groce noted that “P.J. Thompson changed the momentum of the game with that steal,” and he was a major contribution to the Boilermakers off the bench with 7 points and 3 steals.

Purdue certainly had the momentum going into the halftime locker room, and nothing changed at the start of the second half. Purdue fired off 5 quick points to tie the game at 26 before Illinois grew their lead back up to 4. John Groce thought that out of the gates in the second half, “guys were jogging and getting beat on transition buckets.” As a result, Purdue got going and eventually took the lead and grew it to double digits. All of a sudden, the Illini, who led by as many as 13 in the first half, were down by as many as 13 in the second half.

Subsequently, a scoring drought ensued, as the Illini were getting beat down the floor and were unable to get any offensive flow working in the second half. Purdue would maintain a double digit lead as it tried to outlast the Fighting Illini. When it looked as if the game was over, Purdue committed a number of unlikely turnovers. Illinois, after being down by 13 with less than 3 minutes to play, found itself with the ball, down 5, with 8 seconds to play. Though they were unable to pull off the victory, the Illini fought until the very end.

One certainly frustrating aspect of Illinois’ game is the inability to play 40 solid minutes of basketball. Groce said that his team needs to figure out a way to “bottle up the first 16 minutes of that game, and play that hard throughout.” Too many times this year we’ve seen the Illini obtain a solid lead and give it right back. When asked whether or not this game drew any parallels to the road loss against Michigan, Groce thought that it was “different” in the sense that Purdue took control much earlier in the game than did Michigan earlier this season.

The Illini turned the ball over 14 times, some of which, Groce described as 50-50 type turnovers, like the one in which Kendrick Nunn stepped on the baseline early in the first half, but others, Groce thought were “particularly concerning.” “P.J. Thompson dismantled our offense by forcing some live ball turnovers in the first half, and that led to Purdue’s 8-0 run,” said Groce.

John Groce thought that his team played together with good ball movement, but he noted that everyone on his team has to play well if they want to win. “Ray is back,” said Groce, “but other guys need to step up and play well.” Rice scored 25 of the Illini’s 58 points. The rest of the team shot just 9-44 from the field (20%), including Kendrick Nunn who hit just 2 of his 12 shots from the field.

It is undeniable that Illinois will need to figure itself out come Thursday when it will face off against Michigan in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. Unfortunately, a win against the Boilermakers would have granted the Illini a 7 seed, but now, the Illini will have to face the Badgers second round if they manage to beat Michigan.

“Are guys are certainly disappointed, but not discouraged. We need to get our guys some rest over these next couple of days and be ready to go come Thursday,” said Groce. As the NCAA Tournament seems somewhat distant at this point, Illinois still has the Big Ten Tournament to prove himself. Nnanna Egwu thinks that his team “can win the Big Ten Tournament,” so don’t expect him or the rest of his teammates to go down without a fight.


TNT Player of the Game: Rayvonte Rice (25 points, 3 rebound