CHAMPAIGN — Twice in the previous three games entering Thursday, Illinois point guard Tracy Abrams has come off the bench after starting the first 24 games of the season.
He came off the bench again Thursday against Penn State, but Abrams isn’t in any doghouse.
UI coach John Groce has heard the chatter about the decision, including the misconception that the sophomore has been “benched.”
“People make too big a deal about that. I laugh. ‘This guy got benched.’ He didn’t get benched; he played 30 minutes. How did he get benched? It’s crazy. I just laugh and shrug my shoulders,” Groce said.
Abrams didn’t start Feb. 10 at Minnesota. He responded with five points, six assists, six rebounds and no turnovers while also hitting the decisive three-pointer with 18 seconds left in the four-point win.
At Northwestern, Abrams came off the bench and scored 13 points and had four assists.
Defense has been the reason for the shuffling lineup in recent weeks. Abrams hasn’t played bad on that end of the floor. Other guys have just been better.
“We’ve got an accountability system set up right now. Shoot, the last two games back-to-back, all four of those guys have graded out as a ‘B’ or higher. We haven’t had that happen all year; it’s been unbelievable,” Groce said. “The guy gets a ‘B’ on the grade-out, and some guys graded out a little bit higher. It’s not that he hasn’t played particularly well. I haven’t seen what I need to see. It’s more of, ‘This is what we said we’re going to do, we’re going to be consistent with it.’ I think the players respect that. They know it’s not anything personal. We need all those guys to play well, and I think he’s played really well. I thought he was fantastic on Sunday.”
Offensively, Abrams is playing as well as he has all season. The Chicago native is averaging 10.3 points the last three games after going scoreless against Indiana.
“He’s making other guys better, the best he’s done all year. He’s been terrific in balancing making other guys better and scoring and making better decisions and understanding how to play the position,” Groce said. “He’s really taken off, and I’m really excited about his growth.”
As Illinois’ point guard flourishes, Penn State remains a team struggling without its lead guard. The Nittany Lions lost first-team All-Big Ten pick Tim Frazier four games into the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon.
Without Frazier, the Nittany Lions are winless in the Big Ten and entered Thursday 11th in the league in scoring (61.2 points per game).
“It’s tough; he’s a good kid,” Illinois’ Brandon Paul said of Frazier. “Obviously, coming in in our class we hung out a little bit when we went to Big Ten media day the past couple years. He’s a great player. I love playing against him; he makes me better. He’s quick, he’s hard to guard. It’s tough not seeing him out there, but everything happens for a reason.”
Paul said he reached out to Frazier, who averaged 18.8 points, 6.2 assists and 4.7 rebounds as a junior.
“I think he’s handled the situation well. I think he’s helping his teammates out,” Paul said. “I talked to him a little bit. D.J. (Richardson) keeps up with him a little more than I do. I just told him to keep his head up.”
You might have noticed your favorite Illini Twitter accounts have been inactive in recent weeks. Groce instituted a ban on the social media site in an effort to block out outside distractions.
“I think it might work for some people, but we want to limit those as much as possible,” Tyler Griffey said. “My girlfriend searches my name on Twitter and tells me stuff people might say.”
Griffey’s Valentine’s Day surprise was ruined because his plans were exposed on Twitter.
“I got my girlfriend flowers for Valentine’s Day, and someone tweeted that I was in there. She found out because I was trying to surprise her,” he said. “That was kind of a bummer.”
Paul is one of the team’s more active tweeters. His account was listed by one website as the second best among college athletes behind Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel.
“It’s not that hard, but sometimes you want to go back because it’s obviously a fun thing to do,” Paul said. “Twitter is still there; I can still think about it after the season, I guess. I don’t check it so much.
“Twitter doesn’t have an effect on me at all. If I tweet something, it’s not going to have an effect on the next jump shot I take, but at the same time, I guess I do have a little more focus; I don’t have to worry about tweeting.”
With the seniors, led by Richardson taking more of a leadership role with this season’s team, the hope within the program is that the younger stars, like Abrams and Nnanna Egwu, can follow their lead and carry those same traits into the last two years of their Illinois careers.
Groce talks about developing a culture, and it’s beginning to take shape.
Michigan’s John Beilein talked about it when his team played at Illinois earlier this season. He said guys like Stu Douglass and ZacK Novak showed guys like Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway how things should be done. The results have been favorable for the Wolverines.
“He talks a lot about us being the first team with him at Illinois, the first pioneers of his system here, and he always talks about how special that is,” Griffey said. “It’s really important. Us seniors have had some ups and downs in our career, and we want to go out with a legacy we can look back on and be proud of.”
When Penn State and Illinois played two years ago at the Assembly Hall, a blizzard kept most fans at home as about 3,500 folks braved the conditions to attend the game.
Inclement weather hit the Champaign-Urbana area Thursday and attendance figures took a hit again, but it wasn’t as dramatic as the 2011 turnout.
“I remember that game. During the game they mentioned they canceled classes the next day, and they let everybody come down. That was pretty cool,” Griffey said.
The Big Ten announced Thursday the conference tournament at Chicago’s United Center is sold out.
The allotment of tickets made available to the general public in January sold out, and a limited number of all-session packages made available Feb. 1 also have sold out.
It’s the first time the event has been in Chicago since 2007. Ohio State, with Groce on staff, won the title that year.
“Obviously, the Big Ten tournament started in Chicago; it’s always great to be in Chicago,” Big Ten assistant commissioner Scott Chipman said earlier this season. “We love Indianapolis, we love Chicago; two great facilities, two great fan bases. It’s great to be back in Chicago. We’re looking forward to the event.”