Five From the Floor: Abrams, Egwu & More

Five key notes following UNLV and heading into the IPFW matchup, including the toughness of Tracy Abrams, Nnanna Egwu's range, the development of the bench & more...

CHAMPAIGN – Making shots and pouring in baskets at the desirable clip can be fleeting.

Illinois coach John Groce is quick to remind his players this, so he stresses always giving max effort defensively and in the pursuit of rebounds.

Poor shooting can be fleeting, too, though. At least that's what starting guard Tracy Abrams is working on proving.

The junior has hit a dreadful 30 percent (20 for 66) of his shots from the floor, only sank four of his 21 treys.

He's the perfect example though of what Groce preaches to his players – the offensive end should not dictate the other areas of the game.

Abrams is averaging 4.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game and has routinely played with a distinct fearlessness down the stretch.

Against UNLV, Abrams had seven "Matto" plays, where toughness and competitiveness were displayed. That number, which included winning the fight for two loose balls when it mattered most, tied for the most such plays in a single game during the Groce Era.

"I thought his effort was tremendous," Groce said.

Abrams has missed eight shots or more in four of Illinois' six games this season. Surely, this isn't the start he envisioned after spending the offseason improving his stroke and answering questions about whether this was his time to take on more of the perimeter-shooting burden.

A career 26 percent 3-point shooter, it remains to be seen if he'll ever grow comfortable in that role. Whether he does will not define him though.

"His ability to make plays while things weren't going great for him offensively, I thought shows a level of maturity and a step that is very important for him to take because it helps our team not only now but long-term," Groce said.

It was Abrams who whipped the pass to Jon Ekey for the game-tying 3 against UNLV.

He also found Rayvonte Rice for the go-ahead score.

"My main thing right now is just be aggressive and make guys better," Abrams said earlier this week.

He's certainly done that. These are types of plays winners make.

"He fights. He's gonna fight you," Groce said. "It's always great to have guys like that on your team."

JUST GETTING STARTED

As played out as a three-commercial loop on local television, many wondered for much of the offseason how much of the offensive system Groce could teach his newcomers.

Six games in and the discussion is still warranted.

"We're as elementary as we've ever been at this point," Groce said. "Sometimes that worries me."

Groce gets the itch to tinker. He wants to throw in a wrinkle for every situation. But he decided he was going to take it slow with this group. He wants his players to "master" one stage of the implementation before he starts throwing out the next step. He's sticking to his plan, as hard as it is for a guy that's well regarded for his offensive teaching.

"I want to stay as simple as possible and make sure we know what the heck we're doing and make sure we bring the guys along," he said.

KNEW IT ALL ALONG

So let's get this straight: The 6-foot-11, 250-pound center isn't scolded when he lofts 3-pointers?

No, Nnanna Egwu isn't reprimanded when he shoots from the perimeter as the junior did against UNLV, making two of the three treys he left fly. He's encouraged to do so.

"He felt they were going in and so did we," Groce said.

According to Groce, Egwu has taken more practice shots the past two summers than anybody on the team. Last week in one practice he went 5 for 7 from deep. The way the Rebels were defending the pick and roll, Groce knew there could be a chance for Egwu to use his range to take advantage.

It worked perfectly. It's something that could happen more often moving forward.

"The biggest thing is him just having the confidence and encouragement from our staff to shoot them in the games," Groce said.

INVESTING FOR THE FUTURE

Combined, Maverick Morgan and Austin Colbert logged only 16 minutes Tuesday night.

Less doesn't always mean smaller than, though.

Their contributions may have been lost in the shuffle of the exciting comeback win but Groce raved about the spot-help the freshmen bigs provided.

Egwu hit the bench in the first half with foul trouble. Morgan played more, provided a physical presence and notched four points and four rebounds. Both of his scores came following offensive rebounds. Colbert played less, but added an offensive rebound and a put-back bucket of his own.

"Those were big plays for us as we drove the basketball," Groce said.

The development of the duo down low could be crucial for a team short on depth in the post. The staff is working every angle to turn perceived disadvantages, such as the lack of a prototypical 5, into positives (see, Egwu hitting 3s). But on nights where foul trouble is involved, Morgan and Colbert will be on the floor.

"Those guys, they had a few things here and there with execution with some details that we've got to get cleaned up with them in terms of their knowledge and ability to execute those details habitually," Groce said. "That will come. All in all I like their poise and I thought they made some plays throughout the game."

NEXT

A basketball film monster, Groce has always talked about watching opponents with a certain hungry-sounding vigor.

Think evil genius, here.

He talks about some teams with more respect than others. IPFW, the Illini's next opponent falls in the better-than category. Groce compared the Mastodons to an earlier opponent, Valparaiso, a team known for disciplined sets and frustratingly sharp execution.

"I really admire the way they play," Groce said. "They play the right way. They execute. They're really well coached. They're going to challenge us in the detail things."

Now, don't think this is Groce hyping a game against a perceived smaller opponent. Through Groce's basketball eyes, the view is every game offers something, a different challenge that must be passed. You never know when a test question seen in November will show up again in March.

Throw in that IPFW is 5-2, with it's two losses by a combined two points, and it's easy to understand Groce's admiration.

"We're preparing to win the game with our game plan," Groce said. "We prepare the same way regardless."


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