Jon Crispin, BTN men's basketball analyst, October 17, 2016
Following a two-year wait due to injury, Illini guard Tracy Abrams is eager to make his mark on what I predict will be a remarkable turnaround for Illinois.
Far too often, perfectly logical reasons for failure or losses are viewed as excuses in the world of sports. Yes, everyone is faced with the challenges that injuries pose on a collegiate basketball program but few have dealt with what John Groce and his Illini persevered through last season.
Playing without Leron Black was a challenge. Losing graduate transfer Mike Thorne Jr. to injury certainly hurt. But the off-season loss of Abrams, who followed up his 2014 ACL tear with a 2015 Achilles injury, was the toughest to overcome. In the end, the challenge of their losses in both personnel and on the court combined with the experience gained by those left to compete may be what makes the Illini one of the most dangerous teams this season.
At Big Ten Media Day in Washington D.C., I asked Abrams if he had learned anything about the game that he'd apply when he returns to the court for the first time since March 23, 2014. He told me that the game is much simpler than we collectively make it, and he has developed a greater appreciation for the opportunity players have to play college basketball.
As someone who played the college game and also dealt with injury, I can assure you he's correct on both accounts.
It's a unique perspective that many players never develop, and it will be exactly what Groce needs from his floor general and leader. A point guard's ability to simplify the game and manage the ebb and flow of the game and the highs and lows of a season is key to finding success in the Big Ten. In part, it's what gives you patience to see the process through and what allows you to get the most out of your teammates, in practice and in games.
Abrams' new perspective and existing skill-set will help maximize the potential of an already potent attack and will certainly allow Malcolm Hill, possibly the conference's best all-around player, to thrive with significantly less weight on his shoulders.
Groce is extremely excited about his team this year, and I get the feeling that he's anxious to get the season started to begin to showcase what this Illini team can do. He is certainly happy to have his point guard back as Abrams' leadership, decision-making and play-making ability makes life easier for a coach. The hurt, the frustration, the pride and the joy is what often goes overlooked when it comes to the relationship between coaches and players.
The investment that is made by coaches into their players and staff goes far beyond what can be achieved on the court. Spend a year or more as a part of any program in the Big Ten, and you're not just a part of the university or simply a member of the basketball team; you really are part of a family.
Abrams will walk away from Champaign with two masters degrees. He'll be 25 years old when he finally leaves the Illinois basketball team. He'll most certainly have to deal with the "Grandpa" chants from Big Ten opposing fan bases, but it'll be out of respect and he'll enjoy it nonetheless. I'm pretty sure I got much worse than that from the beloved Orange Krush, so I won't feel too badly.
All things considered, Abrams is a success story like many others who have persevered and have continued to pursue greatness regardless of their circumstances. Although he's already succeeded in nearly every way possible, Abrams still has a chance to make a serious impact on the Big Ten in what is his sixth year on campus. He has a chance to help his team make a statement that the Illini are for real this year and deserve to be in the NCAA tournament conversation.
With Abrams, Black and Thorne Jr. back, Groce has all of the pieces in place to be a serious contender. Add in the star-power of Malcolm Hill, and the experience gained by Jalen Coleman-Lands, Michael Finke, Maverick Morgan and DJ Williams last season, and this is a team that will surprise a lot of people.
Predictions aside, the Illini will bring back life to this storied basketball program and will certainly be a joy to watch.
Tracy Abrams career stats