Freshmen making names for themselves this season

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Austin Yattoni

Illinois’ Te’Jon Lucas (3) drives to the basket during the game against Minnesota at State Farm Center on Saturday, February 4. The Illini lost 68-59.

By Matt Gertsmeier, Illini hoops columnist

While the Illinois basketball team has experienced a rather gloomy season, there have been some bright spots to get excited about — Te’Jon Lucas and Kipper Nichols.

The two freshmen have made their mark this year and have looked the part.

Lucas, standing at exactly 6 feet tall, is the shortest member of the Illini this season. The guard from Milwaukee is typically found rocking a classic look on the court with no extra sleeves, headbands or wristbands. Occasionally, his compression shorts will extend past his knees, but I wouldn’t consider that to be a fashion statement.

Instead, Lucas lets his skills do the talking. Don’t let his small stature and simple look on the court fool you. Lucas has plenty of flare to accompany his game.

While only a freshman, Lucas has captivated Illini fans with his performance on the floor. He has appeared in 18 games and has been averaging about 23 minutes in the last six games. He is efficient, and most importantly, he has the potential to be a pure passing point guard.

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    Lucas averages about two assists per game and has the third most assists per game. In his last eight games, Lucas dished out about three assists a game. He has started the last three games for Illinois, but those were all ones where the Illini struggled to shoot the ball — even on open looks.

    Lucas is the long-term solution to the point guard position. Head coach John Groce is demonstrating that with Lucas’ time in the lineup. Even as a young player he refuses to back down from a challenge. Against Wisconsin, Lucas matched up with decorated veteran Bronson Koenig.

    Quickly rising through the ranks is the other standout freshman, Nichols. After sitting through the fall semester to be eligible for play due to transfer rules, Nichols has made a name for himself through both his play and his swagger.

    Compared to Lucas, Nichols has a very different style and is a very different player.

    Nichols is big and solid, standing at 6 feet 6 inches and weighing in at 225 pounds. He’s also got some swagger to go with his size.

    He is on-and-off when it comes to wearing a sleeve on his left arm, but he consistently rocks an upside down Nike headband. It’s become his signature look, just like his defensive prowess.

    Nichols claims he wears the headband upside down to be spontaneous and hopefully make it a trend. I think that would be pretty cool to see, but first I want to see his defensive skills become a trend throughout the rest of the Illini.

    His defensive stats don’t jump off the page by any means. In the 10 games he’s appeared in this season, Nichols has recorded three steals and one block. Rather than being a stat sheet stuffer, Nichols focuses on the little things — keeping himself between the opponent and the rim, limiting drives to the paint, contesting shots.

    He also has a knack for crashing the glass and contributing on offense, averaging about three rebounds and four points per game.

    Both Lucas and Nichols aren’t superstars by any means, but it’s a significant start to a college career, especially for two players who will be looked upon as go-to guys next season.

    Illini fans received a preview of that earlier this season.

    In Illinois’ most impressive win of the season, Lucas and Nichols shared the spotlight. It almost served as a coming out party for the freshmen duo.

    The Illini cruised to an 85-69 win over Michigan thanks in part to Lucas and Nichols. The freshman played for a total of 42 minutes combined. Nichols took care of the scoring and rebounding, finishing with 13 points and eight rebounds, while Lucas provided the dimes with eight assists.

    Since that impressive night, Lucas and Nichols have continued to find ways to contribute. Most recently, Nichols went off for a career-high 16 points and Lucas dished four dimes in Illinois’ 68-59 loss to Minnesota. Both freshmen are playing with more confidence since the beginning of this season.

    The preview was nice to see, but there is still some time before that becomes a night-in-night-out sort of thing.

    In the meantime, be on the lookout for young ballers sporting the upside-down headbands and never overlook any players that aren’t as decked out as some of the others.

    Matt is a junior in Business.

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    @MattGertsmeier