Can Tracy Abrams be the Point Guard John Groce Needs?Posted by Alex Moscoso on October 23rd, 2013
Things went well for John Groce in his first year as Illinois’ head coach. The Illini started the season 12-0, won the Maui Invitational for the first time in school history, beat #1 ranked Indiana in thrilling fashion, won an NCAA Tournament game (only their second since 2006), nearly upset #2 seed Miami in the Round of 32, and received commitments from two Top 50 recruits this summer. Groce did an impressive job motivating his team. Consider that the Illini had a 2-7 record in conference play in the beginning of February and closed the regular season 7-4 to make the NCAA tournament. The long term looks good for the Illini too. Groce has secured a top 10 recruiting class and is waiting on an influx of transfers who are scheduled to play next year. But this year, the Illini are expected to take a step back, only returning three players who logged significant minutes from last year’s team. Of these three, junior guard Tracy Abrams, and particularly his ability to play the point more effectively, may be the biggest factor that determines whether the Illini go dancing in consecutive seasons.
Last year, Abrams shared ball-handling duties with now-graduated Brandon Paul, and was the Illini’s third leading scorer (10.6 PPG). But Abrams’ grind-it-out style isn’t what Groce would prefer to see in his point guard. The Illinois coach wants to play an up-tempo offense with a point guard who can make smart decisions at different speeds. Abrams, who averaged 3.4 assists per game last season, was second on the team in turnover percentage, averaging 19.4 turnovers for every 100 possessions. He also shot poorly from deep last season (27.2 percent), which hinders Groce’s designed system of opening up the floor. However, what Abrams lacks in natural point guard abilities, he makes up in competitiveness and moxie. He was voted MVP by his veteran teammates at the end of his freshman year because of the effort he displayed throughout the season, and he has shown an ability to step up his game in crucial moments. Last season, he scored 27 points in a win against Auburn when the rest of his team struggled, and he hit a three to seal a win at Minnesota in a pivotal conference game.In order for the Illini to have another better-than-expected season, both Abrams’ decision-making and shot will need to improve. His decision-making will be heavily scrutinized if he’s unable to effectively set up teammates like junior big man Nnnanna Egwu, who looks to be the focal point of the offense this season. Abrams will certainly have his chance to prove he can be trusted to run the team’s offense on a full-time basis. The NCAA’s denial of Ahmad Starks’ hardship waiver leaves Abrams as the only experienced ball-handler left on the floor. The other point guard on Illinois’ roster, Jaylon Tate, is an unheralded freshman who isn’t expected to play significant minutes early. And while Starks only averaged 2.3 assists per game during his final year at Oregon State, he was seen as someone who could have been trusted to bring up the ball when Abrams needed a spell. Without Starks, Groce will most likely have to play Abrams extended minutes and rely on either Tate or another guard as backup.
Groce has had a nice run at Illinois thus far and has built up a lot of good will, but a disappointing season in year two will blunt some of that momentum. It’ll be interesting to see if Abrams is capable of stepping up his game to stem that tide, and how Groce adjusts his system to mitigate his current point guard’s deficiencies.