CHAMPAIGN – Looking around the practice gym Wednesday, point guard Tracy Abrams said he doesn’t yet know what kind of team the Illini will be once the season begins next month.
“There’s no identity right now,” the junior said of a roster that includes five freshmen and two transfers who haven’t yet played for the Illini.
Abrams will have a major say in shaping that identity.
Abrams is one of just four players back from last season’s 23-13 team, the only one with any serious experience playing the point in college and, according to second-year coach John Groce, one of the key leaders on a very young team.
Abrams has started 51 games in his two seasons at Illinois, but he has not been vocal.
“Y’all know I’m pretty quiet,” Abrams told reporters. “Humble about myself.”
A year ago, Abrams was part of a team that opened with three senior starters and a graduate student who sometimes started, too.
That team made a surprise trip to the NCAA tournament, riding the sometimes scorching shooting of Brandon Paul – one of those seniors who moved on. With the Nov. 8 opener against Alabama State less than a month away, expectations are probably not that high this season.
Along with Abrams, fifth-year senior Joseph Bertrand will likely be one key piece. He says he’s fully recovered from a torn labrum in his right shoulder that required off-season surgery.
“It was really, really slow,” he said of the healing process. “I didn’t think I was ever going to be able to move [the arm] again.”
Bertrand is another quiet player Groce is asking to take on a leadership role. And, after mostly providing a shot off the bench since he arrived at Illinois, he’ll be asked to provide more offense, too.
Abrams and Bertrand – as well as 6-11 junior center Nnanna Egwu, who started 35 games last season, and transfers Rayvonte Rice and Jon Ekey – provide the bulk of the experience Illinois can draw on.
Beyond them, some of those five freshmen will have to play, Groce said. With a roster of just 11 players, there’s no choice.
But so far, none of them has nailed down a role.
Groce says he’s had to change the way he organizes practices.
“I’ve put the brakes on,” the coach said. “There’s so many things I’ve whacked from the practice plans because we’re not ready for that. And that’s OK. ... Until guys know certain things, we’re not going to move on.”
Abrams said part of his responsibility will be to help those players better, one small step at a time.
“Are we getting better?” he asked rhetorically, sounding a little like a coach. “Are we getting better at one thing today?”
• Sterling graduate will begin fifth season at Illinois finishing his recovery from offseason shoulder surgery. He should be ready for start of season, after averaging 7.3 points and 4.1 rebounds a year ago. Betrand, Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu are only Illini returning with starting experience.