ATLANTA — It’s hard to be sure of what Illinois’ record would be this season without Tracy Abrams. It surely wouldn’t be 7-0 entering tonight’s Big Ten/ACC Challenge game at Georgia Tech (6:15 p.m., ESPN2), not after the junior point guard came to the rescue Friday at State Farm Center to bail the Illini out of an 11-point hole they dug in the first half of a 57-55 win against IPFW.
Abrams’ teammates know it. Illinois coach John Groce knows it, too, which is why the second-year boss greeted Abrams with a big hug in the locker room after the 6-foot-2 Chicagoan scored 12 of his 15 points in the second half of Friday’s win.
And in response to naysayers complaining about Abrams’ field goal percentage (32.5) and his three-point accuracy (17.4), Groce said they can “shove it wherever they want to shove it” and lauded his guard’s toughness during Friday’s postgame news conference. “Dude’s a winner,” Groce said of his starting point guard.
“That’s great to know that he feels that way about me. At the same time, it reminds me to stay humble and to just be positive, and I just try to keep that mind-set through ups and downs,” said Abrams, whose 11.1 scoring average is third on the team.
It’s not the first time Groce has gone on the offensive to stick up for one of his players at Illinois.
Last season, after senior guard D.J. Richardson broke out of a 5-for-28 shooting slump from behind the three-point line, Groce went to bat for him in a postgame news conference after beating Ohio State at home.
“I’ll be honest, I’m tired of people making a big deal out about his deal,” Groce said of Richardson in January. “He’s going to keep shooting because I’m going to tell him to keep shooting. He defends, plays the other team’s best guy almost every night, hardly anyone talks about that. He rebounds; it’s not like he’s an above-the-rim athlete. He screens, dives on loose balls and he plays to win, and I’m not trading him. I love that kid.”
That statement resonated with Richardson, who finished the season as Illinois’ unquestioned leader during a run to the NCAA tournament Round of 32.
“I just respected him for it. It was the truth,” Richardson said. “When Coach Groce put that statement out there, it let a lot of other people know I did more for the team than shoot the ball. I provided leadership, helping out other guys, things that don’t show up in the scouting report or on the stat sheets. Coach Groce defended me on that, and that’s just the type of guy he is.”
Richardson and Abrams are the two players for whom Groce has had to publicly go to bat, and they’re not even guys he recruited into the program. Since he took over for Bruce Weber in March 2012, Groce has always maintained that all the players in the program are his guys, whether he brought them into it or not.
“I enjoy our guys, we’ve got really good guys. I enjoy getting to know them,” Groce said. “I’ve coached those guys two years. Even though we recruited the other guys, you only have contacts and evaluations with those guys when they get to campus. You get to know them during the recruiting process, but you really don’t get to know them in full until you actually coach them.”
Having a coach stick up for you the way Groce is known to do goes a long way toward ensuring a player remains in a frame of mind to produce at the highest level he’s capable.
Though he’s not shooting it at the clip he might like, Abrams isn’t lacking for confidence in his shooting, or any part of his game, for that matter.
“It’s great for me and I think it’s great for the team overall to have that support and know that Coach Groce is going to have your back,” Abrams said. “It’s a great quality for your coach to have, and not a lot of people can say that. My high school coach (Mount Carmel’s Kevin Flaherty) was like that. He helped me out a lot. Coach Groce is definitely different than the rest. He just brings a certain level of energy every day, and it’s good to have a guy come in every day with energy as consistently as he does.”
As long as Groce and his energy are occupying the Illinois sideline, what you’ll see is a team and individuals playing with a belief that won’t be outdone by many others.
“There’s no reason to not have confidence if you have a coach that goes out there and lets you have freedom to just play ball out there,” Richardson said. “There’s no reason to lose confidence when you’ve got a coach on your side like Coach Groce.”