Illinois freshman Tracy Abrams may not be a refined point guard yet, but he's a leader with the intangibles all coaches seek. Illini coach Bruce Weber praises his talents while wishing he were an upperclassman.
"He really wants to do well. He cares about Illinois, he cares about the team. The freshman class is special, and in some ways Tracy is becoming one of our leaders of the team. Which is maybe one of the problems. It puts you in a bind when a freshman has to be the guy encouraging people and bringing the emotion."
Abrams has a fierce hunger to win. One high school game demonstrated clearly his frustrations with losing.
"I remember one game I lost, I just laid out there for about two hours. That's probably one of the worst memories I've ever had."
Of course, he also has memories of taking over games when necessary. For instance, his Chicago Mt. Carmel team was playing in the Illinois team camp against a powerful Chicago Simeon squad a couple summers ago. He single-handedly elevated his team to victory, scoring nearly every point down the stretch.
"Things happen, things change and you have to adjust to the change. I was in a different situation in high school. I like that opportunity, that challenge. The time will come when it is time for me to score and do all the stuff I did in high school. When the situation presents itself, it will come."
He was speaking last week, just prior to his breakout game against Purdue. The situation required his offensive skills, and he delivered with 22 points, albeit in a losing effort. Making his big night possible was Purdue's desire to play off him defensively to help on other UI players.
Early in the year, Abrams deferred to his older teammates on the floor. When he showed his reluctance to shoot three point shots, teams backed off. The team-first player realized he needed to start shooting and hitting buckets to help his team. Late in the Michigan State game, he came off a screen and hit a big three pointer to help win the game.
"He plays better in the games than he does in practice," Weber relates. "He has that, I don't know if it's poise or just that feel and maybe the no-fear to jump up against Michigan State and hit the big three. That was really positive."
Abrams was hoping teams would start guarding him at the arc.
"It will help the team. People may try to deny me now, which gives me a chance to kick out to D.J. (Richardson), Brandon (Paul) and the other shooters on my team. And it will give me a chance to penetrate."
Purdue gave him room, but he slashed to the rim repeatedly anyway. He agrees his confidence is improving with each game.
"I'd say it's pretty high right now. I still feel like I have to bring defense and energy to the team. I'm just going to continue to have the same mindset, do what I do and help the team out."
He is scoring more, but he is still learning to be a true point guard. Weber believes he will get there eventually, but he and the team have experienced plenty of hard knocks through the growth process.
"I don't think it comes natural, but he's gotten a lot better. When Sam (Maniscalco) went down, there was no choice. He had to play 35 to 40 minutes. But from practice, he was not ready. It was pretty obvious."
Abrams is a hard worker who wants to be good. He is a true student of the game.
"You've got to watch film and ask questions at point guard, especially as a freshman. Learning the game and the system, learning how to play hard every game. I think I've come a long way, but I still have a long way to go."
He is not yet in the same league with point guards like Aaron Craft, Jordan Taylor and Tim Frazier. But Weber enjoys watching him discover more about the position.
"He's starting to really see some things and make some passes."
The Big 10 is a tough conference, possibly the most rugged and balanced in the country. Is it what he expected?
"Every game is tough in the Big Ten. You've got to be tough. It's exactly what I expected. I knew the Big Ten was a tough conference, a physical conference. It's very fun playing in the Big Ten."
Abrams has no problem getting fired up for every game.
"I don't think it's a challenge for the freshmen. Having the competitive spirit will overcome that. If you're a competitive person, it shouldn't matter."
However, few have his degree of competitive spirit. Some teammates have admitted finding it easier to get up for big games than others.
"We've got to get better at that. I'd say that's one of our weaknesses. We've got to get up against everybody."
Abrams and his five freshmen teammates have rented an apartment together for next school year. They are a close-knit group, the foundation for the program's future.
"We are all on the same page, we all have the same goal. We want to be successful both on and off the court."
That includes academics. Abrams and his fellow rookies' combined grade point average first semester was better than 3.0, a "B" average. It is important to them.
"Yeah we're doing pretty good in the classroom. That's great, but we all have to keep it up. I had a 3.2 GPA. You just have to maintain your focus."
Abrams will continue to defer to his teammates this year. But don't be surprised to see more games like Purdue down the road.