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December 23, 2013

Illini guard is easy to cheer for

My job calls for me to not have a rooting interest. But I'll let you in on a little secret, all of us columnists and reporters are fans of the games we cover. Naturally, we become fans of a few players we cover.

For instance, I always wanted good things to happen for Nathan Scheelhaase, a sometimes underappreciated player who represented himself and his university extremely well.

Saturday night, I found myself doing what my job tells me not to do: cheering for an individual. I was rooting for the Scheelhaase of the basketball program: Tracy Abrams.

Sometimes, we tend to focus more on what a player doesn't do well than what he does do well. Scheelhaase wasn't a big-armed passer. He made mistakes. Yet, the smart, athletic and oftentimes accurate quarterback was the best option for a limited Illini football program.

Abrams also has his flaws. He isn't a traditional point guard. At 6-foot-1, he's a tad undersized. He's a career 39.0 percent shooter, including 26.2 percent from beyond the three-point arc.

Most must point to his effort-based talents for positives. He's a bulldog defender, a good rebounder and a leader (more by example than vocally to this point). But he also has the gift of getting to the rim. He's not a shooter, but he can score (he averaged 11.0 points per game over the last two seasons). For a team that desperately needs scoring, Abrams must be on the court.

But during his early-season struggles - Abrams shot 31.0 percent over his first eight games - some Illini fans wanted Abrams to sit on the bench.

"I didn't know he was in the doghouse," Groce said last week.

Part of the reason was the impressive play of pass-first freshman point guard Jaylon Tate. Early on, the offense ran more smoothly with Tate at the wheel - the freshman has 39 assists to 11 turnovers this season - but the freshman's scoring skill set is severely limited.

Despite all the struggles, Abrams remained aggressive - almost out-of-control aggressive at times. He was pressing, but Groce didn't want to rein in his lead horse.

"We don't want him to not be aggressive," Groce said. "That's not his game, and that doesn't do us any good if he's passive."

The Illinois coach needs Abrams and couldn't afford the junior to lose confidence. So Groce stuck with Abrams, his score-first lead guard, even when he wasn't scoring. Abrams has reminded fans, and himself, why Groce did.

During the past four games, Abrams has scored 64 points (shooting 46.7 percent from the field, including 37.5 percent from three), pulled down 19 rebounds and dished out 15 assists to six turnovers.

It all came together Saturday under the brightest lights of the season. The guard some wanted to bench willed his team to the Illini's much-needed marquee nonconference win, a 65-64 victory over Missouri.

Following a Jabari Brown three that would have broke the Illini in earlier games or earlier seasons, Groce called a play for leading scorer Rayvonte Rice. The junior guard lost control of the ball and almost ran out of bounds before he saved it to Nnanna Egwu, who swung it to Abrams at the top of the key. Without hesitation, Abrams swung to his left hand, spun past a Missouri defender and wedged himself between two touchy Tigers to get to the free-throw line with 4.6 seconds left.

"I was just being aggressive and find a way to get to the rim and they fouled me," Abrams said.

Free throws to win the Braggin' Rights Game. Illinois fans shudder at the thought. Twenty years prior, star freshman guard Kiwane Garris, a phenomenal free-throw maker, missed two with no time left in double-overtime in a triple-overtime loss.

But Abrams calmed all fears, sinking both to break the Illini's four-game losing streak in the series and etch a signature win into Illinois' NCAA Tournament resume.

That was just one play though. He finished with a season-high 22 points and a team-high six rebounds. He also had several hustle plays that prolonged possessions.

Abrams is the heart and soul of the Illini team, which is probably why this flawed group is aggressive, tough, resilient and fun to watch.

Tate is a good point guard, and a surprisingly great backup option for the Illini this season. But Abrams is a good point guard too, and a better one for Illinois. One's strengths do not have to come at the expense of the other.

"There's guys that play the position different," Groce said last week. "For example, [Jordan] Clarkson at Missouri is terrific [he had a game-high 25 points vs. Illinois]. He gets three or four assists per game in about 35 minutes. But he scores it a lot. What you don't want to do - I'm assuming, and he's Frank's player and he's going to do what Frank wants him to do - but I'm sure he wouldn't tell Clarkson, 'We want you to pass it every time.' That's not using his ability level as I see it on film. Same thing with Tracy. Tracy has the ability to score. He has to balance that. I've used that word a lot. He has to balance making guys better and scoring. As soon as you say, 'Hey, you're just a set-up man,' you're taking away from his skill set, some of his better attributes: his aggressiveness, his ability to attack the paint. Finding that balance I think is important, and it's ever-evolving. And to be honest with you, it's very dynamic game to game depending how teams play certain things. Being able to read that and have a feel for that I think is something he's gotten better at but still continues to make progress in."

Abrams' evolution continues. An off-guard in high school, Abrams took strides as a starting Big Ten point guard last season. He's still not a perfect point, but - much like Scheelhaase - I want him on my team.

I've always found Abrams is easy to root for. He probably persuaded some doubters of that on Saturday.

Jeremy Werner is the co-host and Illinois reporter for the "Tay and J Show," which airs weekdays 3-6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 93.5 in Champaign-Urbana and streams online at espncu.com. You can contact him at jeremy@espncu.com or follow him on Twitter @WernerESPNCU

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