CHAMPAIGN — Last year at this time, Te'Jon Lucas was a bright-eyed freshman, eagerly awaiting his first taste of Division I college basketball.
All the Milwaukee, Wisc., native had to do was watch and learn from the upperclassmen above him and wait for his chance to be a staple in the lineup — a chance that came Jan. 7 at Indiana where he became a rotation player. He became a full-time starter Jan. 25 against Iowa.
Things aren't quite the same this year leading up to Illinois' season-opening basketball game against Southern University Friday.
Lucas has turned from the student to the teacher. He's an elder statesman of sorts for the young Illini.
He's one of five Illini who have actually hoisted an in-game shot at the State Farm Center.
“It's kind of scary, isn't it? A guy with 15 starts is our elder statesman,” first-year Illinois coach Brad Underwood said.
Lucas, after averaging 4.8 points and 3.1 assists last year, figures to be near the top of Underwood's guard carousel. In Underwood's position-less scheme, Lucas should expect to share the floor with a host of other guards.
The scarcity of players who have played in State Farm may be somewhat overstated as players learn Underwood's system and all it encompasses.
“I have experience, obviously, playing in a game,” Lucas said. “We're all learning the system. We're all basically new to this.”
But it has been Lucas, Michael Finke, LeRon Black and Kipper Nichols who have helped the freshmen around campus and through the rigors of Big Ten basketball.
Lucas embraces the role of teacher, and early in practice even took on a new role.
He was placed in concussion protocol after taking an elbow to the right eye from Mark Smith. During his time off the court, Lucas patiently stood near Underwood on the sideline in an effort to broaden his knowledge of the system.
“It helps me a lot, actually,” Lucas said at Illini media day, prior to being cleared for basketball activities — which he since has. “Sometimes you're on the floor when the coaches say something you're like, 'Man, I don't know about all that.' But when I'm on the sideline, I've been able to see more things and learn a lot so when I get back on the court I can take that with me and hopefully lead the team better.”
Much has been made of Underwood's up-tempo offense, but for the offense to be effective, the defense has to be aggressive.
That starts with Lucas, who Underwood called the team's defensive leader.
When Lucas and the defensive unit moves as one, it will open opportunities in transition for easy buckets.
“Basically, when you see that half-court line, I'm going to be sitting there waiting on you,” Lucas said. “I will be the main guy on the ball, defending, trying to pressure 94 feet.
“I feel like our defense is going to be great this year and get a lot of easy buckets.”
And when the Illini do go to a half-court offense, it will no longer be Lucas spearheading the offensive attack.
He led Illinois in assists last season, and his passing prowess could lead to the same this season, but now with a bevy of guards, it won't just be the sophomore setting the offense.
“It's very challenging when you're a point guard and you've got to run every set and be a part of every play,” Underwood said. “His job is to initiate and then, when it's time, to make the right plays to make them.
“I think we've got a group, I think with (Aaron Jordan), Mark Alstork, you look at Mark Smith and Da'Monte (Williams) and right on down to Trent (Frazier), all of those guys are guys who have the ability to make plays and make passes. If we move the ball and share, I think this team can be a high-assist team.”
Lucas scored four points, dished three assists and recorded two steals in Friday's exhibition game loss at Eastern Illinois University.
He also turned the ball over six times, but sometimes these processes take time.
Lucas got the start in the game and appears to have the trust of Underwood, and when the two are clicking, that's a good sign for the rest of the offense.
“When a coach and a point guard are on the same page, it makes things go a lot easier.” Underwood said.