Tracy Abrams had a tough first year on the Illinois basketball team. A series of nagging injuries slowed him at times, and he struggled learning the point guard position. Fortunately, he saw enough playing time to feel much better about his game going into the 2012-12 season.
"I'd say confidence was my biggest improvement. And being comfortable. I got some experience last year, and I feel so much more comfortable right now. I'm just trying to find ways to help my game, be consistent with my shot, improve my ball handling and learn the game more."
He played through pain much of his freshman year, thanks to a series of minor but frustrating injuries. How is his body holding up?
"My body feels fine right now. One of my main goals is to stay healthy."
Illinois head coach John Groce has stated the importance of the point guard position to what he wants to accomplish on the court. Abrams will have tons of responsibility, but he refuses to elevate his own role above his teammates.
"I think every position is just as important as one another. I've got to keep learning the process and the system so I can teach my guys and do all that stuff on the court. Be a leader and bring something to the table.
"There's a lot of things to learn, but it all comes with basketball. The main thing is just playing ball, learning new things with a different system."
Illinois head coach John Groce, assistants Jamall Walker, Dustin Ford and Paris Parham, along with Assistant To The Head Coach Brandon Miller, all played point guard in college. Do all those eyes watching put extra pressure on him?
"That probably takes a toll, but those guys are definitely helping me out with that position, helping me learn the system. With all of them knowing the system, you can't go wrong."
Abrams prefers to discuss team over self. He sees the Illini having a renewed enthusiasm due to the coaching change.
"I really do. A lot of guys came back focused and are trying to get better. No negativity, everything just went out the window. Everyone is just focused and worrying about the team. Everything is positive, and everyone is feeling good going into the season. Everything is clicking; that's one of the main things I like about being together."
Last season fell apart at the end, in part due to uncertainties over the coaching situation. Fortunately, those who lost confidence through that process can forget the past and begin again. Abrams says the team has a renewed confidence.
"I think that's definitely happening. Guys who didn't bring a lot last year were probably down on themselves. But now it's like they've got a new spark of confidence. I definitely think it's positive that those guys are confident of their games."
He likes the emphasis on skill development.
"We're definitely working on skill development a lot more. We work on our offensive game in individual workouts. With team workouts, you get to work on defense. Everyone is working on their strengths and trying to get better on their weaknesses. I think it's good. Guys are coming in focused and working hard. I like it."
The Illini added 6'-8" fifth year senior transfer Sam McLaurin to the front line. Abrams likes what he's seen so far.
"I think he's a great player. He's smart and very experienced. He knows the game; he works hard and plays hard. We needed more depth in the front court."
Groce and his staff are still looking for a backup point guard to relieve some of the burden on Abrams. One possible candidate is slender 6' walkon Mike LaTulip.
"Mike LaTulip is definitely a great guy, fun to talk to. He fills it up; he can definitely shoot the ball. He came in focused with a great attitude. I really like that about him.
"He plays some point guard in open gym. It's a learning process. I wouldn't say he's new to it, but it's definitely a different level of competition. If he keeps working, he'll get it."
Drake transfer Rayvonte Rice is ineligible this year, but Abrams sees qualities that can make him a valuable member of the team the following season.
"I think Ray's been working hard lately, getting his body right and having a good attitude. He's not gonna play next year, but he's been very positive with the players. That's always great."
Abrams will need time to learn all the nuances of the point guard role. But he has the athleticism, intelligence, leadership and work ethic to develop in Groce's system. He has three years to perfect his role. Groce hopes that will come sooner rather than later.