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Illinois Preview 2017-18: Te'Jon Lucas and Mark Smith will lead a talent Illini backcourt

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Northwestern
Illinois guard Te'Jon Lucas
Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

In the weeks leading up to the 2016-’17 college basketball season, BTPowerhouse will be releasing its preview series breaking down each Big Ten team. These will come in a set of series previewing the overall team, the team’s backcourt, wings, and big men, and the team’s schedule. Each post will take a look at its top in-depth and give predictions on the upcoming season.

Today’s edition of the ‘BTPowerhouse Preview Series’ will focus on the backcourt for Illinois. The Illini lost a lot of talent from their 2016-2017 backcourt but Brad Underwood has retooled that group into being one of the best in the Big Ten.

'BTPowerhouse Preview' - Illinois Backcourt:

  • 2016-’17 All-Big Ten Qualifiers: Malcolm Hill
  • Key Departures: Malcolm Hill, Jalen Coleman-Lands, Tracy Abrams
  • Additions: Mark Smith, Mark Alstork, Trent Frazier, Da’Monte Williams
  • Top Player: Mark Smith

The Fighting Illini will have huge shoes to fill from the guards that left their program last season. Former star Malcolm Hill is playing basketball in Europe. Tracy Abrams has graduated. Jalen Coleman-Lands has transferred to DePaul.

Luckily for first year head coach Brad Underwood, the Illini have retooled in their backcourt and will be led by one of the best recruiting classes Illinois has had in years.

Starting Rotation

With six different guards that will be a factor in getting key minutes for Illinois, Te’Jon Lucas, Mark Smith, and Mark Alstork appear to be the three that will be in Underwood’s starting lineup on opening night.

Being one of the returning guard on the roster, Te’Jon Lucas will be Underwood’s most likely choice to start at point guard for Illinois. Last season Lucas averaged just under 21 minutes per game. Though it took a while for former head coach John Groce to realize the impact he had on the court, Lucas made the most of his limited minutes. As a freshman Lucas averaged five points per game while leading the team with three assists per game. A good comparison for Lucas is Michigan State’s Tum Tum Nairn. Though he will not get the majority of the looks offensively, Lucas will be responsible to lead the offense and pass the ball to the plethora of scorers around him.

One of the scorers that Lucas will look to dish the ball to is Mark Smith. In the Illini’s 29th nationally ranked recruiting class, Mark Smith may end up being the best of the bunch. He is already getting praise from his college coach for his athletic ability. At this past week’s Big Ten Media day, Underwood had high praise for Smith.

“He’s very special,” said Underwood. “Physically, he looks the part of a 20-22 year old. It is unfair for me to do it but I compare him to Jason Kidd; he has that type of athleticism.” ( via Chicago Tribune)

It will be a realistic expectation that Smith leads the Illini in scoring this season and can find himself on the All-Big Ten Freshman Team.

To finish out the starting rotation, Underwood dipped into the transfer pool to get Mark Alstork out of the Horizon League’s Wright State.

Last season at Wright State, Alstork led the raiders in scoring while averaging 19 points per game. Alstork proved he was one of the most prolific scorers out of the mid-majors and his services were pursued amongst many high profile programs this past offseason. Even though this will be his only year at the school, Alstork will have the responsibility of being a senior leader on the court for Illinois as well as being a high-profile scorer.

Bench Rotation

With the three starting guard spots being occupied, Trent Frazier, Da’Monte Williams, and Aaron Jordan will find themselves being key contributors off of the bench.

Trent Frazier is another true freshman that will be expected to be a high-volume contributor this season. The 108th ranked recruit in the country will be one of the most athletic players Underwood will have on his roster. With all of the talent at the guard position, Frazier will likely start the season with limited minutes but high production will see that increase.

Da’Monte Williams finishes out the second ranked class in the Big Ten that the Illini have. Williams’s playing time could be very limited to begin the season as he is coming off of an ACL injury that he suffered his senior year in high school. Williams will be a guy that comes off of the bench to give the likes of Lucas and Smith a breather.

While appearing in over 31 games for Illinois last season, Aaron Jordan had very minimal production. As a sophomore he averaged just six minutes and one point per game. With the amount of scorers that Underwood has brought into Illinois this season, Jordan’s role can become even more decreased. However he will be a player that will come in from the bench to give breathers to the starting guards.

Overall

The sting of the loss of Hill, Abrams, and Coleman-Lands does not hurt as much because of the amount of talent Brad Underwood has brought into his program. Mark Smith will be one of the best young talents in the Big Ten and the country. With the insertion of Mike Alstork as a premier scorer and Te’Jon Lucas running the offense at point guard, Illinois will be a mid-level Big Ten team that has a legitimate shot of returning to the NCAA Tournament.