CHICAGO — Most of the Illinois basketball players have different personality traits that make them unique. D.J. Richardson is the team fashion expert.
“I like to color coordinate my clothes, I’m good at that,” the senior said.
Brandon Paul likes to entertain on social media and exercise his acting chops on the Internet with videos on YouTube.
“I like to think of myself as a pretty good actor,” he said.
Sam McLaurin won the video-game challenge at the Maui Invitational and is a connoisseur of shoes.
“I’ve got one of the best shoe games on the team,” the graduate transfer said.
There’s no hidden quirk with Tracy Abrams. What you see from the sophomore point guard on the court is exactly who he is off the floor.
Ask the South Sider what he does to kick back when he’s not wrapped up in hoops and the response is as swift as one of the alley-oop lobs he hoists in Nnanna Egwu’s direction.
“Nothing,” Abrams said. “If I’m not in the gym, which is most of the time, I’m either doing schoolwork or on the couch chillin’ for a few minutes or something.”
His dedication is paying off nearing the halfway point of his Illinois career as he’ll lead the Illini into today’s Big Ten tournament opener against Minnesota at the United Center (11 a.m., BTN). It’s a venue to which Abrams is itching to return.
His best game in an Illinois uniform happened in December’s win against Auburn in The House That Michael Built when he scored a career-high 27 points to go along with eight rebounds, five assists, four steals and one turnover.
Maybe it’s the building. Or maybe it’s just being back in the Chicagoland area that brings out the best in Abrams.
“He’s had two good games up there. I thought the Northwestern game (13 points, four assists) was one of his better games, too,” assistant coach Jamall Walker said. “If he likes playing in Chicago, we need to move all our games up there.”
The Illini can play as many as four games this week at the United Center. How long their run in the Big Ten tournament goes will depend a good deal on how well Abrams plays. His development into a point guard, after being counted on as a scorer in high school, is one of the reasons Illinois is in position to return to the NCAA tournament after the disappointment that was the 17-15 season last year.
“Tracy’s really coming along,” coach John Groce said. “I still think he can even get better; that’s what’s exciting.”
The 6-foot-1 Abrams’ scoring increased from 4.3 points as a freshman to 10.6 this season. His assists are up from 1.9 to 3.4, and his free throw percentage has jumped from 63.0 to 72.7.
“He’s a big part of what we do. In our system, the point guard is always an intricate part of what we do,” said Walker, who works with the Illinois guards. “When he’s playing well, we have a different dimension.”
During Abrams’ freshman year and the early part of this season, when he would make one mistake it would compound into two or three more errors immediately after. He takes the miscues to heart, and it was beginning to cripple his development. That’s one area in which he’s grown.
“Part of that’s maturity, part of that’s learning that you’re not going to be perfect, and the mistakes he makes, as long as he learns and grows from them, that helps us,” Walker said.
“I definitely have gotten better with that,” Abrams said. “When it’s over, it’s over. Just learn from it and leave it.”
Having veterans like Paul and Richardson around has helped Abrams’ development as a player and as a leader. Illinois’ team MVP in 2011-12, Abrams was voted a team captain this season, in large part because of his dedication to the game and to getting better.
“He’s a guy that listens to what the coaches have to say. He’s been improving, and he’s been doing a good job for us, becoming a leader of the team,” Richardson said. “That’s like a little brother to me. We talk about stuff on and off the court. Coach Walker has been telling Tracy to communicate with the other guys more and just take more of a leadership role.”
He’s also loosened up a little bit. Anyone who spends any time in the Illinois basketball offices knows at any time they can be picked on. Abrams is no different.
Freshman guard Mike LaTulip does an impersonation of Abrams gesturing after a call goes against him. He brings his hands to his face, mouth and eyes wide open.
“They pick on me. Everybody jokes with each other around here a lot,” Abrams said. “I can give it back, too. I don’t take anything personal. It’s a family here. I know they support me, so everything is good.”
Everything will be good for Abrams and the Illini if the sophomore can continue his extraordinary ways in his hometown. Abrams’ four siblings and his mom will be on hand today, like they were in December at the United Center. He’s hopeful for an encore performance.
“I just kind of go up there and play,” he said. “I try to do every game like that. I’ve had some success up there, so hopefully I keep that going.”