CHAMPAIGN — Tracy Abrams graduated from prep football powerhouse Mount Carmel in Chicago. Although he didn’t play for Frank Lenti’s storied program, the Illinois sophomore has had a football look to him much of this season, ice bags taped to various parts of his body.
“I’m all good, man, it’s part of the game. You’ve just got to be tough,” Abrams said. “That’s life in the Big Ten. I knew coming into the season it was going to be real tough, but you’ve just got to overcome the bruises and whatever you might have.”
Abrams limped off the floor in Tuesday’s win at Nebraska and went to the locker room for a stretch during the game for treatment. He returned and is expected to be fine for Sunday’s game against No. 2 Michigan.
“He’s just sore. He’s just a little bit sore. We’ve done the right thing there, X-rays and done all those different things and he’s fine,” Illinois coach
John Groce said without specifying what part of Abrams’ body was evaluated. “It’s just that time of year, he’s played a lot of minutes. We try to play an up-tempo style. When we get the ball on offense we’re asking him to do a lot of things defensively, and it’s January, you’ve got to kind of fight through it. Some of the dog days, you’ve got to grind it out. Tracy’s a tough kid, I’m sure he’ll be fine.”
Sunday’s Illinois opponent, 18-1 Michigan, tied a school record by starting 16-0 before losing at Ohio State.
The Wolverines’ last loss before that setback? That was against an Ohio team coached by Groce in last year’s NCAA tournament.
The common thread between last year’s Michigan team and the one that will take the floor Sunday is simple, according to Groce: they’re really good.
“There’s some similarities in terms of personnel, the freshman class has been added. I think back and Stuart Douglass brought some experience and some different things to the table maybe than the other guys bring,” Groce said. “Last year’s team was really, really good. Obviously they won the Big Ten, they were co-champions, and this year’s team is really, really good as well.”
One reason Michigan is in line to ascend to the top of the polls with a win Sunday is the play of point guard Trey Burke.
Groce, a former Ohio State assistant, is familiar with the Columbus, Ohio, native.
“Great kid, great family, terrific player,” Groce said.
In the latest Player of the Year straw poll conducted by ESPN.com, Burke came in second behind Creighton’s Doug McDermott. Burke is averaging 17.8 points and 7.3 assists per game.
“I saw a stat the other day the last player in the Big Ten to average 17-plus points and seven-plus assists per game was Magic Johnson, and he was pretty good,” Groce said. “He makes guys better, can score it on all areas of the court. He’s competitively tough, there’s no question he’s having that type of year. You look at his assist-to-turnover ratio and it’s disgusting, in addition to the scoring he brings to the team. He brings competitiveness to the game that all coaches appreciate and admire.”
After his career-high 30-point performance at Nebraska, D.J. Richardson is hopeful his hot shooting — he hit 6 of 9 three-pointers — will carry over to Sunday’s game against the Wolverines.
“I’ve still been shooting, even though I had a good shooting night against Nebraska. I’m still getting up shots every day,” Richardson said.
The six three-pointers were a career high for Richardson, who has made a three-pointer in 26 straight games.
Richardson’s outside shot has suffered through inconsistencies this season, the senior going 5 of 28 from long range during a five-game stretch.
“He really works at it. That’s why I said after the game that it couldn’t happen to a better guy. He tries to do everything right, everything you ask him to do,” Groce said. “He works at it really hard. I’m hoping, like we all are, that Tuesday night, the way he shot the ball, there’s some carryover. He shot it well yesterday in practice. He’s shot it fairly consistently in practice all year. Hopefully he can piggyback that and can continue to make shots for us.”
For the last two games, Sam McLaurin has started in place of Tyler Griffey. The move appears to have been a good one for both players.
McLaurin scored a season-high seven points at Nebraska. Though his outside shot isn’t falling, Griffey has played with a renewed aggression off the bench, the 6-foot-9 senior grabbing a season-high six rebounds in each of the last two games.
Groce said he’s leaning toward using a lineup that also features Abrams, Richardson, Brandon Paul and Nnanna Egwu.
“(Griffey’s) been more physical. I think he’s been more locked in. He’s getting more rebounds per minute played, I think he’s doing other things to help our team win other than just making shots,” Groce said. “I think he’s done that a couple games in a row, he’s done that in practice as well. That’s why I’m leaning that way and probably going to go that way again on Sunday.
“He got in a little bit of foul trouble on Tuesday, but a couple other guys did as well. I liked his physical disposition.”