Illini basketball

How Tracy Abrams’s injury helps Illini basketball

rubens-achilles-dipped-river-styxTracy Abrams and Rayvonte Rice play the same position. They were the twin Achilles of Illinois basketball,  2014.

Achilles was the fiercest hero of his age . But these days, he’s better known for the ankle his mother held while dipping him in Styx, a river of invulnerability juice (and namesake of the cloying , medicare-eligible soft-rock band) which flows into hell.

Tracy Abrams and Rayvonte Rice performed the role of Achilles, individually, throughout the season.  Each is a warrior. Each is tough as nails. Each drives fearlessly toward the hoop, and trios of defenders. Each shoots under 30% from three-point range.  Neither displayed a knack for the kick-out pass.  That’s the Achilles Heel they share: When Rayvonte Rice and Tracy Abrams drive to the hoop, they become predictable, one dimensional.

That’s not the same as vincible. Even if you know what Ray is going to do, you’ll have a hard time stopping him. Tracy is easier to defend in this situation. But either would be far more effective if he featured one more weapon in his arsenal: the unexpected pass.

Ray played point guard some of the time. Tracy has played both guard positions during his Illini tenure.  In 2014, Tracy averaged 3.2 assists per game, Ray 1.5.

John Groce will be hard pressed to equal the defensive presence of 2014. Ray + Tracy works well on the defensive end.  Of the remaining Illini who play point (Jaylon Tate, Ahmad Starks, Mike LaTulip), none is as good defensively.

Tracy Abrams likely won’t play in 2014-15. After tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, the only scenario that has Abrams playing this year is a Brian Randle-esque take-one-for-the-team offer to forego a year of eligibility because Illinois needs him to seal a championship.

But every cloud has a silver lining. And when life hands you lemons, you make lemonade.



So what’s the bright side of losing Tracy Abrams for the year?  I asked Paris Parham and Jamall Walker.


I don’t know if there’s a bright side right now. We just gotta see how things shake out. Obviously we’ve got a lot of options, more than we had in the past, but  … I don’t know.

It’s so new, so fresh. It could work out to be something special and it could be worse. You just don’t know, you know?


I don’t think there’s a benefit. It’s just that he’s going to come back next year, and he’ll definitely be the team leader again next year.


We haven’t really done a lot since he’s been hurt, so I can’t tell you. But I do know what’s positive about it is that other guys are going to have opportunities to make a case for themselves to play more minutes, and impact the team more.

In the case of Ahmad Starks or (Aaron) Cosby, that’s opportunity for them. Obviously other guys are going to have to step into bigger roles in the leadership area. It’s going to make guys step up more in that area too.


He’ll be the lead from the bench this year, and then definitely come back and be that team leader next year for a team that was probably going to be searching for a leader, you know?

That’s the only benefit there might be: that he is our true leader on the court, and in the locker room. It’s a blessing to have him around for two more years, to be That Guy.


He’s impactual, as far as a leader. For all the things he does sometimes that probably drive the staff crazy — or fans — there’s a lot of things that go unnoticed that he does, that are not on the court.

Will Aaron Cosby play point guard at all?

Parham gave an emphatic “no.” Walker was more circumspect.


I don’t think so. I mean, again this is so fresh and new …

Our first year we experimented with a couple of people at the point before going with BP (Brandon Paul) officially, and he wound up making it. So you never know. I don’t see that  (Cosby at PG) happening, but I think some people are going to have some options. Ray’s an option, for sure. He played it last year.

Ray and Tracy play the same position, and their primary weakness has been passing from the interior. Can that be overcome?


Yeah, it’ll be a little bit different now because we have so many shooters around. We got some guys that can finish at the rim now with Leron (Black).

It’ll be easier for Ray to get to the basket now.

Is it a selling point, for recruits who play the PG position, that they’ll be going against a top defender (Abrams) in practice?


You could say that. But I don’t know if that’s going to affect a kid or not.  It doesn’t seem like it has. But you never know how kids … if I knew how recruits thought, I’d be a genius.


I don’t think you use that as a selling point. Just the fact that you’ve got a veteran guy that you can learn from — or a guy that you could play with. Because Tracy really would have played more off the ball this year with Ahmad.

You mean Tracy would have been playing  at the two (shooting guard)?


Yeah, he would have been playing a lot more two, which he’ll do next year as well because we’ll lose Ray and we’ll lose Starks.

So if we get one of these really good point guards, we’re bringing him in to start. I mean, they’re going to have to earn their keep, but (the selling point is) they’re going to be playing with a guy, alongside a guy who’s got a ton of experience in the Big Ten and in big time basketball.