While John Groce and his Illini are trying to stay locked in on the moment, it's our job to do the forward thinking.
As unlikely as it may seem, this team does have something to play for right now. Granted, they probably need to take this two-game winning streak and turn it into seven to really be a Selection Sunday factor.
Winning seven straight games against Big Ten opponents is something this program hasn't done since 2004-05. But that appears to be the most plausible of the very improbable routes.
It's something to talk about, though, here in late February -- which is more to be said than what would have been projected just a week ago. How long can the Illini walk that tight rope without a misstep into a pool of Super Mario lava? We will see.
Meanwhile, it's hard not to take a look further down the line into the future. In all likelihood, this season isn't going to sky-rocket its way back to the original bar of expectation. So when will the program get back there?
That depends heavily on the returning pieces. Those who will collectively carry the torch when Malcolm Hill -- who is on pace to finish fourth on Illinois' all-time scoring list -- leads a group of five seniors out the door.
There's young talent on the roster for sure. Freshman point guard Te'Jon Lucas has really emerged as the point guard of the future (and present) that fans have been waiting to see. He is an all-important building block for next season and more seasons to come.
Thus, we introduce our new series. The five building blocks for the future for Illini hoops, as we break down what each player has shown, what they must improve, what's their ceiling, and what's their ultimate value to the potential for future success.
PG Te'Jon Lucas
What he's shown
Lucas is a legit Big Ten quality point guard. Based on what Illinois fans have had to watch at the position since Demetri McCamey left Champaign, this freshman playmaker is a sight for sore eyes. Lucas has shown that he is right there in the mix of some good young point guards in the league.
Illini nation enviously watched Illinois native and McCamey's half brother Glynn Watson Jr. at Nebraska last season as a freshman. Oh, what could have been. While Illinois was sitting there with not exactly a dynamite duo of Khalid Lewis and Jaylon Tate. Watson is undoubtedly a hurtful miss in hindsight, but Lucas is a thirst-quencher to a large extent.
He's having a very good month of February -- now that he's consistently playing the kind of minutes he deserves. By settling into his role, the growth potential is evident. And so is the current value. Illinois is by far a different team when Lucas is on the court at both ends of the floor.
That says a lot when the other point guards on the roster are 25 and 22 years old. Lucas is 18. That says a lot when Tate and Tracy Abrams have started 143 games combined at Illinois. Lucas has started eight.
Numbers don't lie. Lucas has averaged 9.2 points and 4.4 assists per game in the month of February, while also shooting 40.6 percent from the field and 40 percent from three. Remember all of that jealous-watching of Watson a year ago? Lucas has better numbers in February than Watson did in February of his freshman season. Watson averaged 9.1 points and 2.4 assists in February, along with shooting percentages of 35.5 percent and 27.8 percent from three.
In fact, Lucas' February numbers are better than those of Maryland freshman point guard Anthony Cowan -- who has been one of the bigger impact freshmen in the conference this season. Cowan is averaging slightly fewer assists than Lucas, and his efficiency numbers aren't nearly as good by shooting around 27 percent overall and from three this month.
Consider the fact that Cowan has been able to blossom by playing upwards of almost 28 minutes per game back in November. Lucas got less than a minute in the season-opener against SEMO. He upped that to three minutes against Northern Kentucky. Six minutes against Detroit. And not a single minute of action against Winthrop, while Tate played 34 minutes on Keon Johnson in his 38-point outing.
Now, you see that Lucas is the best on-ball defender on the Illinois roster. Not long ago, Groce said that Lucas has the highest defensive grade-out of any freshman perimeter player he's coached during his tenures at Illinois and Ohio. Ironic, right? Lucas recently did an admirable job against Northwestern's Bryant McIntosh in a sweep of the Wildcats. McIntosh had to take 37 shots to get 37 points between the two games.
Defensively, Lucas gets the job done with his lateral quickness, active hands and willingness to compete at that end of the floor. He has a high level of toughness too. That has been a big bonus to what Illinois already knew they were getting, and that was a very skilled distributor. Lucas has certainly been that. His vision is off the charts, and he can make passes with either hand at multiple angles. He makes others better.
Michael Finke is shooting a conference-leading 50 percent from three during Big Ten play. And having Lucas drive the lane, collapse the defense and find him open on the short side with a sagging defender -- or even on the backside across the court -- plays right into his strength. Speaking of open threes, Lucas has the ability to hit those himself. He's connected on higher than 42 percent of his three-point attempts this year. He doesn't take many, but he takes good ones and can make them.
Overall, Lucas has shown he belongs at this level. He belongs in the conversation with other promising young point guards in the league like Cowan, Tony Carr at Penn State, Carsen Edwards at Purdue and Cassius Winston at Michigan State. He's better than Iowa freshman Jordan Bohannon. And he's shown much more this year than Michigan freshman and former Illini priority target Xavier Simpson, who has played just 8.9 minutes per game this year.
Simpson was the one Illinois pushed for back in August of 2015. And Simpson spurning the Illini with a secret trip to Michigan before committing just seemed like another disappointing disaster in recruiting point guards. But Lucas is 20 month younger than Simpson. And Lucas missed most of this past offseason with a fractured ankle -- meaning his potential to make a jump from freshman to sophomore year should be pretty high.
There's plenty of time for their careers to play out, but the ball might have bounced Illinois' way by the look of things at this stage.
What needs work
First and foremost, Lucas needs to get stronger this offseason. That will help his development in a couple of areas. One aspect of his game that obviously needs improvement is his ability to finish around the basket. Adding strength will enable him to better absorb contact and stay under control to score on his drives to the hoop.
He has the quickness and the ball IQ to see lanes and go. He just needs to be able to finish at a higher rate. Part of it is repetition, which allows the game to slow down. But a good portion of it is being stronger when the game gets more physical the closer you get to the rim.
Added strength can help Lucas against ball pressure as well. There are guards who get up in your space and use their frame to keep you off your route. Having a strong base and upper body can allow you to fight through that. And on the flip side, it will help you defend physical guards.
Lucas didn't play a minute in the Big Ten home opener against Ohio State. At the time, a team source said Groce didn't want any part of putting Lucas on 6-foot-5, 210-pound point guard JaQuan Lyle. He ended up scoring 26 points.
Lucas won't be able to help giving up five inches to Lyle. But being stronger can take away some of the thought of him being bullied by bigger guards at that end of the floor.
The second main area of focus should be Lucas' shot. He's a capable shooter. He can knock down some open threes. Lucas will always be a pass-first point guard. But he can certainly improve his stroke -- whether that be from beyond the arc or in the mid-range for pull-up jumpers off the dribble. The more spots on the floor that he can knock down shots, the more dangerous he becomes.
And one of those spots is the free-throw line. Lucas has shot 58.3 percent from the stripe this season. He missed some late at Iowa that could have been costly. He needs to improve in that area.
Lucas has the ceiling to be a pretty good Big Ten point guard when it's all said and done. Will he ever be elite in regards to the conference -- getting named first-team All-Big Ten? Probably not. But he has the potential to be in that next echelon.
Think Big Ten All-Defensive team. Think potential league-leader in assists. Think about an experienced floor general who excels in those two areas, and can also be a double-digit scorer in his own right.
In terms of assists per minute played, Lucas has a higher rate as a freshman than McCamey did. Lucas is at .153 assists per minute played, while McCamey finished his freshman season at .120. McCamey went on to set the program record for assist average in a single season at 7.1 assists per game. Could Lucas' ceiling extend that high one day? It's possible. But McCamey was ridiculously good that season.
It's a safer bet to say his growth potential should have him end up top-five on the all-time assist chart for the program. That would be a very impressive feat. It's also one that is pretty attainable. If Lucas maintains his current rate a freshman, he would need to average around 4.4 assists per game through the next three seasons to pass Kiwane Garris for fifth in Illinois history. He would need closer to five per game the rest of the way to catch Deron Williams, who reached fourth in just three seasons.
Don't look for Lucas to be a star. He doesn't have plus athleticism. He's not a plus scorer. But he can help a team win. And he can rack up dimes. His ceiling isn't sky-high but it is pretty rock-solid for a Big Ten starter.
Level of importance
(1-10 with 10 being the highest) 8 -- Point guard is the most important position on the court, and Illini fans have had to learn that the hard way. Lucas is a very important determinant of Illinois' ability to win going forward. There aren't too many things more essential than having a lead guard who puts life in the offense and having a defensive stopper at the head of your defense. Lucas can be those things. His ability to develop and put more weight on his shoulders will say a lot about the future.
Lucas will have help, though, with top-100 point guard Trent Frazier coming in next season. Frazier has the potential to be a dynamic offensive player. Does that take away from Lucas' importance? Not necessarily. They have different strengths, and they can complement each other on the court.
What if Illinois takes a swing and connects on 2018 five-star point guard Ayo Dosunmu? The dynamic could change then. What about if the Illini land Mark Smith and he proves to be a capable lead guard in the Big Ten? Maybe that changes some things too. But nothing should be assumed until then.
For now, Lucas and Frazier should be expected to be intertwined. And Lucas brings qualities as a facilitator and defender that help breed success if you put a nice collection of pieces around him.