The team finished near the bottom of the conference and nobody cared what I wrote and sometimes I didn't even write anything at all. Through all that, though, I did admire watching senior point guard Dustin Ware.
He was less than 6-feet tall. He stood no chance of playing in the NBA (he's overseas now). He could shoot the 3, but he really didn't do anything at an elite level, or a great level for that matter.
He was just a winner – he had that winning personality. The team itself wasn't winning, but Ware played the game the right way, gave great effort, did little things in games that nobody notices when spring football is less than a month away or a prized quarterback recruit is rumored to be on campus. He had a calming influence on the floor. He made mistakes, sure. But it was almost like his screw-ups weren't that bad because you could see what he was trying to do, why it didn't work.
He hated losing. He never talked about himself. He led without letting everybody know that he was leading. I appreciate the hell out of players like that.
Tracy Abrams, to me, is like that. He's still has a long way to go before he's a finished product, but you can see his winning personality.
One of the first things I noticed when I started flipping through the media guide last month was that Abrams was named team MVP last year. He was a freshman. He didn't start every game. He didn't lead in scoring. He didn't lead in a lot of things. He just led.
Brandon Paul needs to be more consistent. Nnanna Egwu and Sam McLaurin and whoever down low needs to balance the scoring. D.J. Richardson has to attack the basket more. All of this is true and the list goes on.
But more importantly, Abrams needs to be on the floor when all those things happen. I think he's the most important player on this year's team.
He's not on the Wooden List. He's not going to lead the team in scoring. He doesn't have Paul's talent or Joe Bertrand's athleticism or Richardson's shot.
He's just a winner.
Right now, he's playing with increasing confidence. He stepped into two or three 3s last night like he was the only person to ever shoot a 3. On one shot, a miss, he started backpedaled down the court because he knew it was going in. He looked surprised when it rimmed in and out. He did most of his damage by attacking the rim, netting eight points off layups and one more at the line after being fouled on one of those makes. His assertiveness on offense is key.
Everybody seemed to doubt his ballhandling and ability to be the point guard coach Groce needed at the start of practice – with good reason. He struggled for the first bit of practice, but has gotten better each week. So far he has nine assists to five turnovers, which will work all day.
Trust in Tracy. If Illinois is going to better preseason expectations, he'll be at the center of the movement.
2. Tyler playing loose. Speaking of exceeding expectations – why is Tyler Griffey playing so carefree and loose? Why is he smiling so much? It's almost like basketball is supposed to be fun or something.
When you play like the senior forward did last night basketball is a real good time. Again, I'll state that I was in another time zone last season and didn't watch much of Illinois. And by much, I mean I saw zero games. I've read over the stats a dozen times, but that doesn't tell me how Griffey was employed and how he played.
I can only speak for the present moment – but Griffey, to me, is being put in good situations by Groce's system. Pick and pop – that phrase was made for Tyler Griffey. He's a 6-9, 220-pounder who's shot 31 percent from 3 in his career.
The pick and pop was made for that. Inbounds plays are drawn up for that. He hit 3 of the 4 3s he took Monday. So, says St. Francis, we're got to stop him from annihilating us from the perimeter. Defenders ran at him like mad men every time he caught the ball.
How did Griffey respond? With a pump fake, two dribbles and a pull-up from the elbow. He did that two or three times and added an awkward looking floater-thing shot, too.
He's a fourth-year player. He's smart. And he's playing a role that suits his game.
He's having fun.
3. Taking care of the basketball. Groce has said over and over and over again – he wants the team to play with 10 to 12 turnovers a game. Anything less than 10 might make the guys play tight. Anything more than 12 and you're reaching a dangerous amount of wasted possessions.
Through two games, the team has only 20 turnovers – Groce is the one with a math degree, but even I can tell you the team's average is right on the mark.
As I mentioned above – I know most of you weren't holding your breath about the whole point guard, ball handling, perimeter stuff situation to begin with.
But so far, so good. Turnovers happen. We all know that. I think 20 through two games, the first two games in a new offensive pace and system, is reasonable, especially when I can only recall a few that were careless or didn't seem to have a purpose.
4. Getting better each time out. I'm echoing St. Francis' coach with this, but I've seen improvement each time I've seen this team – Orange and Blue scrimmage to Monday's game.
The players are playing hard, they're giving effort and they're beating teams by margins they should be.
That's allowing Groce to fully evaluate what's going on out there. He's not looking at the film and saying, ‘Well the play didn't work because so and so didn't hustle to their spot.' If there's a breakdown, it's not because for lack of effort. It's because of execution – screens, communication, players out of position. Those are things you can coach up, change and get better at. That's how you build.
As a coach, having your players play hard is essentially all you can ask for. You can't have execution without first effort.
5. Wait and see. I said all that other stuff and now I'll point out – the two wins came against Colgate and St. Francis. The combined record of those two fine institutions was 23-37 last season.
So, Illinois looked good beating two teams it was supposed to beat soundly. I'm a positive person by nature (at least in my writing), so I give credit for doing something you're supposed to do.
Effort, improvement, intensity – all those things are important, regardless of what team you're playing.
Now, this trip to Hawaii should give us a few matchups to see what Illinois is all about.
I'm not saying Abrams will continue his assist-turnover ratio or that Griffey will continue to score double figures every night. But you play the games on the schedule for a reason – to get ready for the next games on the schedule.
So we'll not rush to proclamation here. We'll just wait and see.