Illini basketball

The Quinn Richardson Lesson

Te’Jon Lucas verballed his commitment to Illinois basketball six weeks after Tracy Abrams’s second season-ending injury. So he’s known all along that his freshman season would find him on a roster featuring two veteran upperclassmen at his position.

Maybe Te’Jon never regarded himself as Option 3 among the point guards. And maybe he’s not.

Ten days ago, he said the option of a freshman redshirt year has been discussed only by family members, and mostly because they weren’t up-to-speed on his recovery from a broken ankle in early February.

But whatever the depth chart, the Illini roster recalls one of the most intriguing (and in hindsight brilliant) strategic maneuvers in Illinois basketball history.

Lou Henson knew Derek Harper and Bruce Douglas were going to handle the ball in 1983.  He must have known that Harper would then enter the NBA Draft.

So Henson asked Quinn Richardson to sit out his senior season, and bank his last year of eligibility for 1984. As a 5th year senior, Richardson was a starter on Illinois’ B1G championship team.

Jim Rossow interviewed Richardson in 2009, prefatory to the 1984 team’s reunion.

All I had to hear was “more playing time” and I jumped at it. That was probably an atypical situation, especially for a senior. Seldom do you have seniors redshirt unless they get injured. But look how it turned out.

From A Century of Orange and Blue: Celebrating 100 Years of Fighting Illini by Loren Tate, Jared Gelfond:

Quinn Richardson’s career stat line is remarkable to behold. By deferring to two all-century Illini, he sextupled his scoring average. His minutes increased by NINETY-FIVE PERCENT over his junior year.

Jaylon Tate, Te’Jon Lucas and Tracy Abrams can’t all play 20 minutes per game this year. And they won’t.

Abrams must and will play this year. But what about the other two?

Tate started half of the games he played in last season (missing a few with that nasty pinky dislocation in game 1), but averaged only 17.5 minutes.  He didn’t play at all at Wisconsin, and only three minutes against Indiana.

Jaylon Tate’s career stats

But Tate knows the flowgame and the packline. He’s in good physical condition. So even if John Groce lost faith in him last February, it’s hard to imagine Groce supplanting him with a kid who turned 18 this month, who’s recovering from major surgery, and who’s just now learning the system.

Lucas could follow in Tate’s footsteps by spelling Abrams for eight to ten minutes a game.  But as of now, that’s still Tate’s job.

Tate is unlikely to opt out for the 2016-17 season, but what if he did? There are no scholarship seniors on next year’s roster.

Lucas’s conditioning and inexperience would seem to make him a prime candidate for a redshirt, but nobody knows that. It’s just a hunch.

His teammates think he can contribute this year.

Should everyone universally assume that Tracy Abrams is the starter at point guard? It seems like the safest bet in town, right?

Well, keep in mind the intriguing aspect of the Groce-Abrams relationship, revealed at the 2014 MBB banquet. Groce praised Joe Bertrand and Jon Ekey for accepting diminished roles mid-season (paving the way for Malcolm Hill) and added that such “sacrifice” would be a key to the next season’s success.

Groce was talking about Tracy Abrams.

You’ll remember the context. Illinois fans had just endured a miserable season, plagued by “hero ball.”

You’ll remember how 2014’s slim NCAA hopes ended: Tracy Abrams alligator-armed a runner against Michigan, in a one point loss.

You’ll remember how 2014 ended overall: Tracy Abrams firing a long airball at Clemson, in a one point loss.

So in April of 2014, Tracy Abrams was not the wave of the future in John Groce’s mind.

On the other hand, Groce incessantly voices appreciation for Abrams’s work-ethic and leadership.

Before the collapse, those qualities took the spotlight in Abrams’s amazing performance during the first game of that Big Ten Tournament. 25 points, seven rebounds, two steals, two assists and a blocked shot.

The most exciting part was the defense, and defense has always been the reason Tracy sees the court.  Derided as a mediocre defender by those who don’t understand Groce’s philosophy, Tracy has always characterized the foremost principle of Groce’s defense with a word those naysayers would never guess: “trust.”

And he just plain tries hard.

Abrams has inspired and flummoxed Illini fans his entire career. He always puts the team on his back. He sometimes carries it to victory.

The dagger at Minnesota comes to mind.

His tying and go-ahead free-throws in Braggin’ Rights 2013 will not be soon forgotten.

Abrams assisted on Ekey’s buzzer-beater at Iowa, an option play called 44 Flat Fade. But even on that play, the ball seemed to stick in Tracy’s hands longer than you’d ideally want it to stick. That allowed Aaron White to get so far up Ekey’s grill, that science has yet to determine how the shot went in.

It’s that stickiness that’s held Tracy Abrams down. He’s never been able to get rid of the ball quickly. Getting rid of the ball quickly is Jaylon Tate’s preeminent skill.

Abrams has never demonstrated any fear, but he’s also never demonstrated the ability to penetrate and kick, one of the foremost skills required of Groce’s offense. Jaylon Tate is good at that, too. The thing Tate can’t do, famously, is shoot.

“Who cares?” said Howard Moore, in a hallway of the Marriott O’Hare, during last autumn’s Big Ten Basketball Media Day. “Really,” agreed Stephen Bardo.

Bardo and Moore blocked the intersection of two arterial hallways for much of that morning. Moore had taken a job as BTN analyst before Bo Ryan’s retirement freed up his old position on the Badger staff. Count him among Jaylon Tate’s fans. Coaches love watching good passers.

Tracy Abrams is no Derek Harper, and Te’Jon Lucas is probably not the second-coming of Bruce Douglas.

Jaylon Tate could pull a Chester Frazier on us, and finish his Illini career as a competent shooter. But there’s no Gary Nottingham on staff to analyze and correct shooting form.

It seems unlikely that Tate would follow the Quinn Richardson example. But it would be fun watching him alley-oop to Jeremiah Tilmon.