CHAMPAIGN — When Ahmad Starks’ waiver to play immediately was denied earlier this month, many Illinois basketball followers wondered what it meant for the depth at point guard behind returning starter Tracy Abrams.
In Thursday’s 101-66 exhibition win against McKendree at State Farm Center, freshman Jaylon Tate took steps toward calming fears about the lead guard position.
It was the 6-foot-3 Simeon product running the offense when the Illini went on a 27-9 run at the end of the first half, erasing a 30-20 deficit. He finished with 13 points and three assists in his first collegiate action. The numbers, particularly in the scoring department, might have come as a surprise, but Tate’s steady floor game is the reason he’s wearing an Illinois uniform.
“He’s got an ability to lead and communicate. I noticed that watching him prior to him coming here,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “He loves to learn, student of the game, makes good decisions. He’s accepted his role. Sometimes it’s difficult for freshmen to do that. He’s accepted it, and he understands what we need him to do out there, and I thought (Thursday night) he did some good things for us.”
The starter at that position, Abrams was good, too. The junior shook off an ankle injury less than two minutes into the game that forced him to the locker room to score a game-high 16 points to go along with three rebounds and three assists.
“I just tweaked my ankle a little bit, got re-taped,” Abrams said. “I’ve got to find a way to help my team out. We pulled it together as a group.”
For Abrams, a solid showing was something he was looking forward to after his performance in last week’s Orange and Blue Scrimmage that Groce considered to be lackluster.
“I thought in the scrimmage, defensively, he was out of position a lot. I expect more from a guy who’s been in our program for a year. He knows what he’s doing,” Groce said.
“(Thursday night), he played like he practiced post Orange and Blue Scrimmage. He did some good things. Tracy wants to be good; he cares at a high level. He’s a great kid.”
More than his individual accomplishments, Abrams cares about winning, and he knows in order for the Illini to have any chance of reaching their goal of playing in the NCAA tournament, everyone on the eligible roster has to play at a high level.
That includes the guy playing behind him competing for playing time at his position.
“I feel like (Tate) played good. He looked real comfortable out there,” Abrams said. “As always, for us both, there’s always room for improvement. Jaylon did pretty good out there. We’re going to need him.”
Champaign’s Rayvonte Rice, who sat out last season after transferring from Drake, scored 13 points for the Illini. Illinois State transfer Jon Ekey scored 12 to go along with six rebounds.
Tate wasn’t the only freshman who played well Thursday. When Illinois went on a 27-9 run to close the first half, it did so with four freshmen — Tate, Kendrick Nunn, Malcolm Hill, Austin Colbert — on the floor along with fifth-year senior Joseph Bertrand (eight points, eight rebounds).
“I thought that was a really important part of the game. I love their energy and they were making plays, not only on the offensive end, but they were making plays on the defensive end that led to transition offense,” Groce said. “We stuck with that group that made the run at the end of the half.”
Hill and Colbert had eight points and three rebounds apiece. Nunn (four rebounds) and the fifth freshman, Maverick Morgan (five rebounds) each scored six points.
“I thought they made a lot of plays for us, put us in position where we were up eight at the half,” Groce said. “It was a 19-point turnaround there in the first half. I thought that group did a really good job. I loved their energy.”
So do the veteran players.
“It’s pretty good for our team; we need those guys, obviously. We need all the guys who lace it up,” Abrams said. “It’s good for those guys to go out there and gain some experience just to help us out overall. We all need each other; that’s how we have to lean on it. The more those guys get to play, the better it helps our team.”
McKendree coach Harry Statham is entering his 48th season at his alma mater, but Thursday’s game was a homecoming of sorts for him. After graduating from McKendree in 1960, Statham spent time on Harry Combes’ Illinois staff as a graduate assistant in the early 1960s, though he downplayed his time here.
“I was kind of a hanger-on guy as a GA with track and basketball,” Statham said. “It’s been a long time since I was here. It’s a great place to be from and affiliated with. It’s the U of I, it’s Illinois.”
Groce complimented Statham’s team, which jumped to an 11-point lead early in the first half and appreciated having a former Illini back in the building.
“I want to give Harry’s team a lot of credit. They came out very confident, very aggressive. They came out and made shots early. It was great to have him back,” Groce said. “He’s meant a lot to that (McKendree) program; he’s doing a great job coaching there in the midst of their transition from NAIA to Division II, which is never easy. We’re pulling for them. As a former Illini, it was great to have him back.”
Statham is a fan of Groce and the program he’s building at Illinois.
“I think they’re going to be good. They’ve got a lot of balance, quickness, some athleticism, some size,” he said. “I like them. The coach does a good job with them; they’re really well-coached.”
Back in town
Matt Kruse, a freshman big man from Monticello, saw the first action of his collegiate career in the second half of Thursday’s exhibition game. It wasn’t planned, but with starting forward Arthur Williams fouling out with 15 minutes left and another frontcourt starter, Will Kirksey, leaving the game with an injury, Kruse got the call.
He scored one point and grabbed a rebound in eight minutes.
“He’s going to be a player down the road, but we’re not giving freshmen very much time at this point,” Statham said. “He got a chance to play (Thursday night), and that’s good for him. He’s going to be a good player. Good things are ahead for him and for our team.”