Can Tracy Abrams Save Illinois?

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on November 25th, 2016

Despite the recent signing of five-star recruit Jeremiah Tilmon, Illinois head coach John Groce is past the point of selling the future to Illini fans. Rather, competing for a berth in this season’s NCAA Tournament is an absolute necessity. While senior Malcolm Hill is expected to be one of the top 10 players in the Big Ten this year, he needs help that could come from a forgotten name: point guard Tracy Abrams. The sixth-year senior not only went through the personal agony of redshirting the last two years because of injuries, but it was clear that the team missed his leadership and offensive capabilities as well. With Abrams now fully back in action, he may just be the spark plug that Groce needs to position Illinois as an at-large NCAA bid contender from the Big Ten.

After two long years, Tracy Abrams will finally be able spark the Illini offense. (Eric Gay/AP)

The Illini averaged an abysmal 0.97 points per possession last season because they didn’t have a reliable point guard to complement the skill sets of Hill and Kendrick Nunn on the wings. As a result, Jaylon Tate unexpectedly stepped into the point guard role, and while serviceable he wasn’t particularly effective. Nunn and Hill combined to take over 300 shots from beyond the arc, making a meager 35 percent of those attempts. Most of those shots came from plays in isolation because Tate didn’t have the ability to effectively set up his shooters. Tate’s strength is to push tempo on the fast break and find angles for penetration. He has no mid-range game nor a respectable shot from three-point range so defenders essentially give him several feel of space and dare him to shoot.

With Abrams back in action this season, Tate has generally stuck with what works — dribble penetration to set up other players. His assist rate of 26.0 percent ranks among the top 250 nationally, and through six games, Illinois’ offense has been marginally better. Abrams’ reinstitution with Groce’s offense has resulted in improvement in the shooting aspects of the game — the Illini’s effective field goal percentage as well as conversions from both two-point and three-point range are up. The senior is a big reason for that — yesterday’s poor performance against West Virginia notwithstanding, Abrams ranks among the nation’s top 250 in Offensive Rating (127.8) and is shooting a highly efficient rate from both two-point (52.2%) and three-point range (53.8%).

The question, as always with Illinois, is whether the simple addition of Abrams to the lineup will be enough. The Illini turned the ball over 24 times against the ball-hawking pressure of West Virginia, and the frontcourt is very much a work in progress. Sophomore Michael Finke (team-high 13 points against the Mountaineers) has shown some early promise, but Illinois’ team defense has really struggled in stopping penetration the last two games (giving up 51.6 percent from two-point range and an average of 86.5 points to Winthrop and West Virginia). The fact is that the Illini don’t seem to do anything particularly well on the defensive end of the floor, which begs the question as to what Groce can focus on improving to really push his team into the NCAA conversation by February. With Florida State and its (so far) elite offense on tap this afternoon, Illinois should have a better sense of where the program stands now that Abrams has returned and how far there is left to go.

Deepak Jayanti (270 Posts)

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One response to “Can Tracy Abrams Save Illinois?”

  1. Walt says:

    Gross can’t coach or teach……

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