Illini basketball: Breaking down the guards


Austin Yattoni

Illinois’ Te’Jon Lucas (3) brings the ball up the court during the game against Northwestern at State Farm Center on Tuesday, February 21.

By Thomas Polcyn, Illini hoops columnist

It has been no secret that new head coach Brad Underwood likes to use his guards a lot. His fast-paced system revolves around using multiple lead guards pushing the ball up and down the court from the moment they get the outlet pass from their big men.

Knowing how important they will be to the team this season, it’s about time to break them down.

Te’Jon Lucas

Lucas looks ready to take on an even bigger role in his sophomore season after starting the last 15 games of the season last year. He has great court vision and finishing ability, and showed some flashes of Deron Williams-esque passing last season.

Though he has recently been in the concussion protocol due to a collision with Mark Smith, he seems to be back on track and ready to start the season as the team’s lead guard. Since Underwood runs a position-less system, we’ll see Lucas anywhere on the floor, but look for him to be the team’s best facilitator and help to create shots for his new wing-mates Smith and Trent Frazier. A combination of his vision, along with Smith’s finishing ability and Frazier’s range will be a tough matchup for any opponent.

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Mark Smith

Smith is going to play a large role on the team from day one. The reigning Mr. Basketball in Illinois stayed in his home state for the opportunity to take the Illini to another level, and he is going to have his shot immediately. Smith is a player that can do it all on the court, and in Underwood’s system, that means he will be getting a lot of minutes.

If I had to guess, I would include Smith in a starting group of guards that includes himself, Lucas and Mark Alstork. In that group, Smith figures to play in at more of the traditional “2 spot,” but that does not mean he will be limited to creating shots on the perimeter. He will make himself plenty of opportunities in the paint, while often finding himself on the free-throw line.

Mark Alstork

Alstork is an interesting player who will be somewhat of an x factor for the Illini this season. He is another big guard that knows how to spread the floor, and possesses great ability in finishing at the hoop and getting to the free-throw line. In his last season at Wright State, he averaged 19 points per game, along with 4.7 rebounds and 3.5 assists. I do not expect his numbers to translate directly into Illinois, but he is somebody that Underwood can certainly rely on for some points and to get to the rim.

Da’Monte Williams

A lot of fans have been hyped up about watching Smith and Frazier, but they seem to be forgetting about another hugely important freshman on the team. Williams, son of Illini legend Frank Williams, is another extremely talented guard that was regarded as a top-50 prospect in the nation before hurting his knee during his senior season. Like Alstork and Smith, he has good size at 6-foot-3, 190 lbs., but he plays much bigger than that. He is already a plus-defender, and will have no trouble trying to find his shots or dish out a pass to any of his other wing-mates in traffic.

Williams will likely be the 6th-man come Nov. 10, but he will absolutely have his opportunities to get plenty of minutes. With Underwood running a system that is defense-oriented, leading into the offense, Williams will see plenty of time, especially in crucial situations near the end of the game.

Trent Frazier

Frazier is probably the most exciting to watch of the newcomers. Standing at just 6-foot-1, 170 lbs., he doesn’t have the size of a Smith or Alstork, but he makes up for it with his athleticism and shot-making ability. Frazier can flat-out score, and he will do it in bunches this year. He has the most range of any of the guys in the group, and will not be afraid to show it. He also has great finishing ability. Despite his lack of size, he has shown that he will take it to the hoop when he can and has the creativity to finish it or get to the free-throw line. Look for him to be taking a lot of shots late in close games.

Aaron Jordan

Jordan is somebody who didn’t get much of a shot with the last coaching regime, but will have his opportunities to get some minutes this year. Jordan is another big guard that will look to thrive in Underwood’s position-less system. He has good range, and has the potential to be a solid contributor on both ends of the floor.

Underwood mentioned him a couple of times, saying that he has been making some shots in practices, and he is looking to expand his role. Look for him to make a bigger impact this season and to maybe take on a de facto mentoring role for some of the younger guys.

Tyler Underwood

Underwood, the son of coach Underwood, will probably see some time on the floor this year. He is a solid defender who can get you a stop and has shown some range in practice. But, his role thus far has been helping the other guards getting used to his father’s unique system. Tyler had the opportunity to play in the system for the past two seasons, first at SF-Austin, before going to Oklahoma State the following season.

He has done a great job in practices of helping guys like Smith, Frazier, Williams or even Lucas with their positioning, and though his impact might not always be seen directly on the court, he is still playing a huge role for this team.

Drew Cayce

Cayce is an interesting case — no pun intended — as we have not seen much of him outside of practice. He redshirted during his freshman season at Creighton and had to sit last year due to NCAA transfer rules.

All the same, he looks to be a talented shooter with some solid range and the ability to make some shots. It will be interesting to see how he is utilized in Underwood’s system and has the potential to come in and score some points.

Samson Oladimeji

Oladimeji is a sophomore guard who also has some size to him. He appeared in seven games last season, scoring his first career points against Central Michigan.

Though he has not gotten much time in the past, he has some talent and has the potential to grab some minutes. Oladimeji is a walk-on from the northern suburbs of Chicago who could be looking to make a bigger impact this season.

Clayton Jones

Jones, the hometown guy, appeared in nine games last year, hitting a memorable three-pointer against Valparaiso in the NIT. He has shown that he can make some shots and has the potential to score a little bit off of the bench this season.

But, with a group this deep, his opportunities will likely be limited. Look for him to make some shots here and there throughout the season.


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