Abrams wants to win so bad it hurts
CHAMPAIGN — In breaking down and picking apart Tracy Abrams’ game, sure you’ll find some flaws, some question marks. There are some areas that need to be tightened. Everybody’s got them.
The one thing you know for certain every time he steps onto the court for the Illini is toughness. It was on display more so than ever in Sunday’s loss at Indiana.
Less than two minutes in, Abrams’ back began to spasm, forcing him to the locker room twice with athletic trainer Paul Schmidt. Despite the spasms continuing, Abrams fought Illinois coach John Groce to get back into the game to provide whatever assistance he could in an attempt to keep the losing streak from reaching six games.
“He’s a winner, we all know that,” Groce said. “He has intangibles that make him a lot of fun to coach. If Tracy can play, he’ll play. He’s a tough kid.”
Abrams’ grit will be back on display Saturday night for the Illini as they return home to face No. 15 Iowa (6:30 p.m., BTN) looking to end that skid. The spasms, they might come with him. That won’t stop him from giving whatever it is he can for his coaches and teammates.
“I’m just being competitive out there. It’s all about winning, regardless of how I’m feeling or anyone else,” Abrams said. “We all have the same goal and that’s to win.”
The back spasms are something Illinois’ second-leading scorer has been dealing with much of the season. It’s happened at least twice in games before Sunday’s flare-up. But those instances were minor compared to what Abrams dealt with at Indiana.
“That was definitely a different level of pain,” he said.
Where does this grittiness come from? Groce says it’s just a part of the junior from Chicago’s DNA, crediting Abrams’ parents for instilling those values in him.
Abrams tosses the credit in another direction.
“Coach helped me out a lot with that,” the 2011-12 Illini team MVP said. “You’ve got to stick with it. Coach Groce definitely put a lot of things in my head that you’ve got to be tough physically and mentally.”
Jon Ekey spent four years in the program at Illinois State before transferring to Illinois for his senior season. He’s been around tough guys, citing former Redbirds point guard Anthony Cousins among the toughest.
“Tracy, though, is on another level,” Ekey said. “When you see him hurting and wanting to win so bad but can’t do it, it drives you a little more.”
Despite having lost the last six games, Groce continues to laud his team’s toughness. “We’ve got a bunch of tough dudes,” he likes to say. It’s one of the staples he’s always held at the forefront of his programs in six seasons as a head coach at Ohio and Illinois. If you’re not tough, you’re not going to play for John Groce.
Abrams, though, has taken that leap this season.
“I don’t think he was a year ago,” Groce said. “I’m really proud of the development he’s made from a leadership perspective to being more vocal, the way he interacts with his teammates. The way he talks to those guys in practice. The fact that he’s more of an everyday guy now than he was a year ago. He understands the value of that more, embraces that more. In a lot of areas, whether that’s academics, personal choices, how he practices, he exemplifies a lot of what we want to be about culturally.”
It’s an example that the five Illinois freshmen are seeing every day from the veteran that’s trickling down to them. When Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate see Abrams fighting to get on the court while dealing with excruciating pain, it’s a message to them that they’re expected to exhibit the same type of resilience.
“It shows that you’ve got to try to battle. Not everyone’s going to feel good at this point in the year,” Illinois assistant coach Jamall Walker said. “It becomes more of a mental challenge than anything else. A lot of guys see that. As a younger guy, you see that it’s not only physical, but it’s mental as well.”