CHAMPAIGN -- Illini freshmen Te'Jon Lucas and Kipper Nichols have undeniable talent, but it took a full helping of trust from head coach John Groce to allow them to unleash it -- and did they ever in an 85-69 beatdown of Michigan on Wednesday night.
Lucas and Nichols came off the bench at the 15:55 mark in the first half, which was a significant contrast from playing in the midst of blowouts in their previous Big Ten appearances. And the young guns came to play, as they made an impact as soon as they touched the floor.
Lucas banked in a three on Illinois' first possession with the freshmen in the game. On the following possession, Nichols put one in from the paint. Moments later, Lucas dished off his first of eight assists.
On the night, Lucas finished with five points, eight dimes and just one turnover in a career-high 23 minutes. Nichols had 13 points and eight rebounds -- including five offensive boards -- in a career-high 19 minutes.
At the surface, it was somewhat of a courageous move for Groce to go all-in with the unproven duo in this very game. It felt like the Illini were back in must-win mode at home. And in comes a program that was 7-1 against Groce-led Illini teams. This is your game to take the handcuffs off the young fellas?
When you dig deeper, this was a long time coming. A move that the Illini badly needed to make -- probably sooner. But the restless fan base was finally able to escape from Lucas-hungry insanity as Illinois let go of what seemed insane.
Do the same thing over and over again and expect different results. That's insanity, and it was clear after Indiana that the Illini couldn't settle for sameness. Lucas has unequivocally been the more talented point guard over Jaylon Tate since November, and he got his chance to prove it.
The freshman playmaker was outstanding against the Wolverines. His pace, his vision and his energy were a big part of Illinois' offense finding the best movement and synchronization they've attained against a legit foe.
"You've got to let him play, be aggressive and attack. He makes good decisions. He can see things that a lot of guys can't see," Groce said of Lucas. "I thought he made some great passes. Made our team better."
The 'you've got to let him play' piece was ironic but true. It's been preached from the stands, message boards and Twittersphere by the fan base without the buy-in of Groce himself. Before, Groce seemed like the reluctant parent who only let his young'uns 'free' in the playpen.
Now, he's released them uninhibited into the Big Ten world. And Groce was right about the effect it had on his group. As a team, the Illini had 21 assists on 34 made buckets -- their best ratio of the year against a D-1 opponent.
Maverick Morgan tied a season-high with eight buckets, including a pair off assists from Lucas. One came on a controlled coast down the lane and beautiful no-look bounce from Lucas to Morgan for a lay-in.
Even the senior center, who played in his 58th career Big Ten regular season game on Wednesday, could tell a difference in the feel and energy of the team with Lucas and Nichols on the court.
"It is just a -- I want to say -- aura," Morgan said. "It's energy. It's something that not everybody can bring. It picks everyone up and gets everyone going -- the crowd included. Especially us."
Auras, engery, whatever it may be, Illinois will take more of it. What Lucas has as a catalyst with his playmaking, Nichols has as a finisher with his motor and physicality. He alone had three putback finishes off of an offensive rebound.
He caught one of his misses in mid-air and put it back in without touching the ground. And late in the second half with the Illini up 74-57 with less than six minutes to go, Nichols willed his way to corralling the missed free throw by Tracy Abrams to put it back in. Relentless.
There were plenty more plays to draw on between the two. And they connected on one that sent the crowd into a frenzy as part of a 7-0 run in the first half.
Lucas used a nice hesitation move to get a step on the drive going towards the hole, but he saw what was almost behind his head. That was Nichols open from three near the top of the key. So the passing magician whipped one over his head on point to Nichols. Splash. Timeout Michigan. The place erupts.
Nichols was asked to describe the play in the postgame presser.
"He has great vision on the court, man. He sees a lot," Nichols said of Lucas. "That's just like a regular pass for him. It might have seemed kinda cool, but he does that. Young fella is good."
No joke. It was another reminder of why Groce and his staff were so excited to not only break their point guard drought on the recruiting trail in the 2016 class, but to get that kind of player. One that was considered among the most skilled distributors in the country. A talent they were willing to take instead of waiting for future Mr. Basketball point guard Charlie Moore.
And while it wasn't easy to wait his turn, Lucas kept working and kept his faith in the coach he trusted with his future.
"Me and Coach Groce, we have a good relationship. So we talk constantly," Lucas said. "He tells me to just keep doing good and (my) time will come. It's just a process. Just keep getting better each day and my time will come."
The time is now. Wednesday was a glimpse of the future. And when you piece together Lucas and Nichols with the names of Illinois' decorated 2017 class, in addition to returners like Jalen Coleman-Lands, Leron Black and Michael Finke, you have something there.
But more importantly, you have something now. And that's what it's really about. This team has their own collection of talent. They've just needed a little kick, and they got it. For one night.
The big question, as it pertains to most young players, can they bring it again?
"It was good for tonight. Obviously, in this league, it doesn't get you much on Saturday," Groce said. "So it's another game on Saturday. We've got to be ready to go at five o'clock against a really good Maryland team."
It's about consistency, and Groce said that will be message he works to get across to Lucas and Nichols following their success.
"That's the drum we're going to be beating. Be consistent with your effort. Be consistent with your attitude. Be consistent with what you bring to the table every game, every practice, every day. Don't take a play off," he said. "We're going to continue to hold them accountable to that standard."
Groce also added that they'll work to clean up some mistakes. Lucas' one and only turnover was a behind-the-back pass in traffic that led to a dunk the other way -- causing his coach to almost lose it. With Nichols, Groce mentioned 'two or three' times when he called one thing and Nichols ran something different.
That happens. And freshmen mistakes are going to happen. But talent makes up for it. And that sustained trust will be the nutrients that produce growth in Illinois' up-and-comers.
Another big opportunity awaits with the Terps coming in. The oldest Big Ten roster against one of the youngest. We saw it play out to a 25-point shellacking in College Park.
But it's a new game. And the movement of youth in Champaign just may breathe some more fresh life into this team.
"At the end of the day, whatever Groce tells me to go out there and do," Nichols said.
With production comes more delegation. And you can bet Illini nation will be revved up to see what their exciting freshmen can do with it on Saturday.