In recent years, a slew of senior graduate transfers has become somewhat of a tradition after the college basketball season ends. Due to NCAA rules allowing players who have already earned a degree to transfer without the mandatory sit-out season, each spring brings a handful of upperclassmen who, for one reason or another, wish to finish their career elsewhere. These players frequently bring out a host of interested suitors, as they're already battle-tested at the D1 level, provide several years of tape so coaches know what they're getting, and represent low-risk stopgaps who can at best be major contributors for a year, and at worst only cost a program one year of scholarship if they don't work out.
One name that surfaced soon after the end of the year in 2015 was Mike Thorne, Jr, a 6-11, 270 pound center from Charlotte. Thorne is a mountain of a young man who posted solid rebounding numbers and provided some efficient post scoring for the 49ers last year. His combination of size, strength and experience made him a prime target for programs in need of frontcourt depth, attracting some high profile suitors including Kansas, Arizona, and reportedly even a late push from Kentucky.
In the end, Thorne announced this weekend that he was taking his talents to Illinois. The move does make sense for thorne, as Illinois only had two major contributors last year standing taller than 6'7, one of whom was a senior. Thorne is on record saying that his major concern was finding a destination that could help him achieve his dream of playing in the NBA, and it's hard to fault him for choosing a P5 program with very little competition in the frontcourt.
But what does this mean for Kansas? Self got in on the Thorne sweepstakes early and often, meeting with him directly, and earning Kansas a spot of his list of finalists. In the end, Thorne abruptly chose Illinois, a lower-profile program. What, if anything, can we read into Thorne's decision? Below I explore what I see as the two most likely explanations for his decision to go elsewhere.
Explanation One - Kansas' frontcourt is too crowded
This may not hit your ear quite right at first, given that quality frontcourt depth was actually a big concern for Kansas by the end of 2015. While the Jayhawks still don't have a bevy of elite big men on the roster, they do have a number of guys who aren't likely to see their minutes disappear. Perry Ellis is probably the best player on the team, and has as many minutes as he can reasonably play locked down a the power forward position. Landen Lucas isn't a big name, but made a lot of strides last year and is clearly a guy that Self wanted on the court by the end of the season. Jamari Traylor is missing some basketball skills, but plays with a ton of energy and hustle, and Self is unlikely to relegate him to the end of the bench for his senior year. Then there's incoming freshman Carlton Bragg, a McDonald's All-American who may have a shot at starting alongside Perry Ellis next year. Throw in the fact that senior Hunter Mickelson is still on the roster, and Thorne may have figured that there just weren't enough minutes to go around for him to get the kind of exposure he sought.
Explanation Two - Self anticipates another blue chip big man in this year's class
This is the explanation that most fans are hoping for. If Self is reasonably sure that one of the handful of uncommitted big name post players will be coming to Lawrence, he would likely have told Thorne to go ahead and move on. Barring an unforeseen development on the recruiting front, the only two likely candidates to fill the role of a second freshman big man would be Thon Maker and Cheick Diallo. 247 sports lists Kansas and Kentucky in a virtual dead heat for Maker's services (provided he chooses to play in America), and a dead heat with St. John's for Diallo. If Self knows something we don't about either of these top 10 recruits, he may well have quietly withdrawn Kansas from the list of Thorne's suitors. This is an exciting possibility, but it's important not to get one's hopes up when it comes to recruiting.
We'll probably find out which of these was the case within a few weeks, after Maker and Diallo announce their decisions. If explanation one turns out to be the case, Kansas may find themselves hoping that a) Carlton Bragg is ready for primetime right away, and/or b) Landen Lucas continues the development he showed in the spring through the offseason. Otherwise, the rotation of bigs that struggled to contribute offensively last year will again shoulder the burden of taking the scoring pressure off the backcourt. Of course, if explanation two bears out, we should have a new starting center, and players like Lucas and Traylor can simply provide depth, a role to which they're better suited. If this ends up the case, Kansas fans are unlikely to give the name Mike Thorne another thought moving forward.