USA Today // Mike Granse

Piper: Five reasons to keep watching this season

Need reasons to keep watching this season? Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper gives you five.

If this Illini basketball season were played in the video game world, the Illinois fan base would be ready to hit 'sim to offseason' as soon as the option pops up on the screen.

If this were a bad movie on DVR, you'd be white-knuckled pressing on 'fast forward'.

If this were a destination on your Maps app, you'd be on your iPhone saying: 'Siri, get me the hell out of here'.

That's where we're at with five Big Ten regular season games left. That's where we're at hitting the halfway point of February. It's inevitable that Illinois (14-12, 4-9) will miss the NCAA tournament for a fourth straight year. It's apparent that John Groce hasn't left athletic director Josh Whitman with a logical choice other than to find the next guy.

That's where fans' heads will be at going forward. That's where they've been at.

A loss at home on Saturday against Penn State nailed that in even more. But yet, there are still games to be played -- for the small faction that still cares about that.

Here are five reasons why you should keep watching.

Point guard growth

Te'Jon Lucas is the most promising point guard Illinois has had since Demetri McCamey, and he's right at the top of the list of reasons to watch Illini basketball right now. Lucas is really starting to come into his own -- now that he's getting the kind of opportunity that was overdue.

The freshman playmaker was instrumental in the win at Northwestern last week. He played a career-high 33 minutes and put up 11 points, six assists and five rebounds. The Illinois offense flowed with Lucas using his quickness off the dribble and facilitating with his supreme vision. That's a nice win to see your point guard of the future orchestrate on the road.

And on Saturday, Lucas followed it up with 11 points, seven dimes and two steals. He was one of the few players who brought life to what looked like a lifeless team. And he's at least played some defense. Groce said on Friday that Lucas has had the highest defensive grade-out of any perimeter freshman he's had as a head coach.

Illinois fans have waited a while -- too long -- for a starting point guard that is of Big Ten caliber. Lucas is that. Time to watch him grow. He can learn through successes and failures now that the leash has been loosened, and the delusion that Jaylon Tate should play over him has passed.

Think back to McCamey's freshman year. Illinois went 5-13 in the league. They lost nonconference home games to Miami (OH) and Tennessee State before that. It was a disastrous season. But Bruce Weber slowly but surely let his freshman point guard roll. And had some big-time moments to show you what was coming.

When the season was all but over in February, McCamey put on a show at the (real) Assembly Hall by scoring 31 points and hitting seven threes in a double-overtime loss to Indiana and Eric Gordon. The freshman had arrived. And in the Big Ten tournament, McCamey went off for 26 points and hit all six of his three-point attempts in a win against Purdue in the quarterfinals. He went on to be named to the All-Tournament team, as Illinois went to the championship game.

That's a bar that Lucas isn't going to live up to this year. And he doesn't possess the scoring capability of McCamey. But that's not to say he can't continue to progress and be a bright spot down the stretch of a dark season.

McCamey set a school record for assists as a junior with 7.1 dimes per game, which was second in the nation. As a freshman, he led his team with 3.9 assists during Big Ten play -- which was fourth in the conference. Lucas currently averages 3.9 assists per game in Big Ten play. He is at .163 assists per minute played. McCamey finished his freshman year at .120 assists per minute played.

What do you have next year

It's not too early to start thinking about what you have on next year's roster. Of course, the incoming recruiting class plays a big role there -- and the Illini are going to need some freshmen to step up if they're going to be competitive.

How about what you have returning? Lucas has given you something to look forward to. He'll be solid next season. Kipper Nichols has also shown what he can provide, which is a mix of effort, physicality and some offensive capability. For a player that was nearly a complete unknown coming into this year, Nichols' play has been encouraging for significant stretches.

He is averaging 5.9 points and 3.7 rebounds in 16.3 minutes per game in Big Ten play. He had 16 points and six rebounds against Minnesota. He provided a spark off the bench at Northwestern. And Nichols got his first start on Saturday against Penn State. He hit a pair of threes -- making for six straight treys he's made over the last three games. And his outside jumper is considered one of the weaker parts of his game.

Like Lucas, Nichols gives Illinois fans reason for intrigue the rest of the way. Can he take some more steps down the stretch? It's conceivable to see him being your starting small forward next season and beyond.

But as the freshmen have left you encouraged, the sophomores have been discouraging as a group. D.J. Williams and Aaron Jordan are complete non-factors from the 2015 class, and it would shock no one if both are gone after this season. Then, you have Jalen Coleman-Lands, Leron Black and Michael Finke. That's your veteran nucleus going into next season. And they have talent. But as a combined trio, they have disappointed in the Big Ten season.

It's true that Finke is shooting 54.1 percent from the field and a league-leading 52.9 percent from three in Big Ten games. But in some of the tougher games, Finke has not been effective. He was scoreless at Indiana and at home against Wisconsin. His value is in his shot-making, and he's averaged 6.7 points per game in Big Ten play. As a rebounder and a defender, he's not there. And is he ever going to be?

It's true that Black looked like a future star in the league right after he got back from suspension to start the year. Maybe Nigel Hayes-esque. He averaged 14.4 points and 7.7 boards per game through his first seven contests. He was clearly the second best player on the team. But it didn't last. Yes, Black is top-25 in the country in defensive rebounding percentage on the season. But he's averaged just 6.2 points per game in Big Ten play. He doesn't look anywhere close to the same player that we saw in November and most of December.

And then, there is Coleman-Lands. He finished last season as one of the best freshmen guards in the league. But statistically, he has regressed this season. His scoring average has gone from 10.3 points to 8.2 points per game. He shot 41.2 percent last year and 42.2 percent from three. This season, he is shooting 35.3 percent and 36.1 percent from three. Coleman-Lands is still a very good shooter. But he's been far too inconsistent. Shot selection is an issue. He hasn't progressed his off-the-dribble game like we thought he would.

It will be interesting to see how these players close out the season, because that is what you're leaning on pretty heavily next year.

Malcolm's farewell

While Illinois isn't chasing anything significant as a team, Malcolm Hill is chasing the greats in the program history book. Hill is currently 8th on the all-time scoring list with 1,679 career points. He's 14 points away from passing Eddie Johnson (1,692). Based on his 16.8 points per game average with a minimum of six games left, Hill is on pace to pass McCamey (1,718), Cory Bradford (1,735) and Brian Cook (1,748) on the list to finish fourth in program history -- right behind Dee Brown (1,812).

That's worth watching and appreciating. Hill is already part of the 1,600-point/600-rebound club, as he became one of only five players in Illini history to reach that mark. Once he reaches 1,700 points, Hill will join Cook and Deon Thomas as the only Illini to finish their careers with at least 1,700 points and 600-plus rebounds.

Hill has his flaws as a player. Athleticism is not his strong suit. He's become a better defender but he struggles with guys who can accelerate quicker and jump higher. He has a hard time getting by those guys too. And from a leadership perspective, he's not the vocal, inspiring leader that you might wish for.

It's a fair criticism to say he's stats over wins in terms of results. A relative Carmelo Anthony in terms of being a talented player with good numbers but not a winner. A guy you can't have as your Batman and expect him to carry you far. But at the same time, basketball is a team game. Hill been placed with an enormous amount of weight on his shoulders the last two seasons. And you can see the emotional wear and tear at this point in his career -- knowing his goal of playing the NCAA tournament is essentially unreachable.

It hasn't been for a lack of caring. It hasn't been for a lack of hard work. He lived in the gym over the summer. He transformed his body. He's given what he's had to this program, which could have materialized into more team success with a better team (or formation of parts) around him.

There's a large distaste for Illinois basketball right now. It's completely understandable. But appreciate Hill while you can. It may be a while before you see a more productive four-year player in the orange and blue.

Little Brother battle

Northwestern comes to town next Tuesday. Illinois did what they could do to mess up their NCAA tournament chances last week. A loss at home to the Illini looks pretty bad on the resume. But of course, the Wildcats bounced back with a win at Wisconsin.

Chris Collins' team will be dancing for the first time in program history. But that's still 'little brother', even if he's having a better year than you. No Illini fan wants to see Northwestern stroll into Champaign and beat them, right?

Just like when the Green Bay Packers come to Chicago in December. The Bears season is over by then, and no one really cares. Except for when these teams play. Don't tell me a shot at a Northwestern sweep wouldn't be satisfying. Want to be relevant on Selection Sunday? How about listening to bracketologists say: 'Northwestern has had a good year. Couple nice wins, but being swept by Illinois could hurt them in the seeding.'

I know, a sweep isn't likely. But go ahead and tell your wife or girlfriend that you're not interested in watching the Illinois game next Tuesday night. And I'll show you how quickly that remote clicks on Monday's DVR'd recording of The Bachelor. Don't let it happen to you.

Miles Bridges

Have you seen this kid? A future lottery pick. One of the most entertaining players in college basketball. He comes to Champaign on March 1. Enjoy.

Failed reasons

Who knows, they could win the Big Ten tournament

So you're sayin' there's a... Nah.

Illinois-Rutgers could be epic again

Fixed: Illinois-Rutgers should be epically awful.

'Saturdays are for the boys'

What are you gonna do instead? Go to Bed, Bath & Beyond? Well, technically that would be productive -- which this team is not. And it's going to be in the 60s on Saturday across the state when the Illini play at Iowa so... That's on you. Some of us watch so we don't get fined.

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