CHAMPAIGN -- Practice officially starts for the Illini basketball program on Monday, and no one is more anxious and grateful than sixth-year senior point guard Tracy Abrams.
A three-year starter in the Big Ten, Abrams had to miss back to back seasons after tearing his ACL in Sept. 2014 and tearing his Achilles in July 2015. His hopes for the season were already shot by the time Day One of fall practice rolled around.
After countless hours in the training room and continuously putting on a button-up instead of a jersey on game day, Abrams is back. He's thankful and determined.
You can see it in his smile every day his Nikes touch the orange and blue-painted maple wood at Ubben. But he won't let a glimpse of the smile fool you. His eyes tell you everything you need to know about his toughness and disposition.
Abrams is a battle-tested warrior who won't blink in the face of a challenge. He's the leader John Groce has sorely missed on the court, in the huddle and in the locker room. He's the commander Illinois wants at the forefront of the war that is basketball in the Big Ten.
Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper sat down with Abrams to talk about the start of practice, his road back and the upcoming season.
Derek Piper: Practice starts on Monday. You've been out before Day One the last two years. Describe that level of excitement for you to get out there and get going.
Tracy Abrams: Obviously, it's definitely a blessing just to be in this position. I've been out the last couple years so I thank God for good health. I'm definitely excited. The next six weeks will be big for us. I'm looking forward to the journey and having a great time.
DP: You've been able to play in the open gyms over the last couple of weeks. How do you feel physically?
TA: I feel pretty good. Obviously, I'm still working at getting in better shape -- keep working at that. I'm definitely comfortable with where I'm at. I want to keep working, keep getting better, keep getting stronger and sharp. I'm definitely excited about where I'm at. I'm humbled about it. Just going to keep pushing.
DP: It looks like you're moving pretty well. You've been facilitating out there. Where do you feel like you're at with your game? What areas do you feel really good about right now? What areas do you feel need to improve before the season starts?
TA: I feel good about my whole game right now. I'm not trying to be cocky. Talk is cheap. Show is tell. I'm definitely comfortable with where I'm at and I'm confident in the work that I've put in. I'm confident in myself for the future.
DP: What about the team as a whole? What have you seen from them?
TA: We're being tough and together right now. Just trying to keep building off that. With practice coming up, we just got to keep grinding and keep putting chips in the bank every day so when that time comes, we're prepared.
DP: Obviously, you're the leader of this team. What are you trying to pull out of the guys, even though the season isn't here just yet?
TA: To us, we look at it as the season is here. Right now, we're preparing. We know we've got to get better. We know it's a long season. We're just going to carry a chip on our shoulder and keep working every day.
DP: You've been here for a while. You've been around a lot of different groups within this program. What do you like about this one in particular?
TA: We have fun together. Our disposition is great right now. We trust and we're together. I've played on teams and I'm not saying that we weren't, but just to be back and to have that feeling is great. Like I said, I'm confident in us and the work we've put in. When the ball tips on Oct. 30 for the exhibition, just going to keep building from there to game time.
DP: After last year, there would seem to be a hunger around this program. You walk in the building and it feels like there is. Do you feel that?
TA: Of course. It's in the air for us. But right now, we're not focused on that. We know what we can do.
DP: Touching on last year a little bit, how hard was that for you to sit there and watch?
TA: Obviously the last few years, I've been watching. It was definitely hard knowing that I can't be out there to help those guys because I know I could help them in a lot of situations. But last year is over. We know we learned from that. Right now, we're moving forward.
DP: What were you able to take from that time sitting out? Was that beneficial for you at all?
TA: That time was very, very beneficial for me. Just learning the game. Looking at the game from a different perspective. That's probably the only time I've ever been out in my whole career. So my whole perspective changed. I started looking at the little things of the game. I can definitely say I've grown a lot just from sitting back and watching.
DP: Take me back to last July. I know it's probably something you don't like to think about a lot. But you're getting ready for Europe and you tear your Achilles. What do you remember about that? And what were the toughest moments of that process?
TA: When it first happened, it was just 'why me'. But everything I went through with my ACL prepared me for my second go-around. I focused in on strength and the little things. I grew a lot more the second time around, personally. It's definitely a blessing to me. I was able to get stronger, work on my game and be able to learn the game a little bit better.
DP: There's got to be some tough days mixed in there. Was there ever a doubt in your mind on any day that you'd be back out here with a chance to play in an Illinois uniform?
TA: Nah, there was no doubt. I'm a dog.
DP: From a different perspective on what you went through, how does that change a person? Obviously, it challenges you but at the same time, it has to make you more thankful for what you have.
TA: Definitely, definitely more thankful. Just appreciative of being around people in this program, the loyal fans -- the ones who are here supporting us. I'm just thankful of the whole environment here. It gives me a chance to understand and show my appreciation.
DP: While you're out, how were you able to keep a positive mindset? How did you stay sharp mentally day in and day out, and who were some people that maybe helped you do that?
TA: Just my teammates kept me in place. I wasn't out there so it wasn't about me. It was more about how can I help them? So the reflection was never self-centered. It was more about the team and those guys were my motivation. I wanted to be out there to help them. That kind of gave me my edge. I'm all about positive vibes and positive energy. I try to put out positive waves. I feel like they come back to you. It's about good energy.
DP: I've talked to quite a few guys on this team recently. They say it's a different team when you're out on the court. What does that mean to you?
TA: Just leadership. Using my experience. I want what's best for them -- most importantly. I want them to know that when we're out there. While we're here, we're here to win, help each other out and grow. I just try to carry that on the court and off the court. I love my teammates and I know they love me back.
DP: You've been in the Big Ten longer than anybody. You know what it takes. What do you guys need to do to be ready for that this year?
TA: Play tough and play together. Trust each other. Trust in the system and trust in the staff. So TNT... And T. Trust, toughness and togetherness.
DP: Is that your motto for this year?
TA: That's our motto if you ask me. Everything else will fall in place. I think the sky is the limit for us. If we take care of that and lock in on defense, everything else will play out.
DP: You've got a lot of veterans in this group. That's got to be something you can use to your advantage.
TA: Yeah, guys who have been through the ups and the downs. Guys who are hungry. Guys who want to win. Guys who know what it takes. It definitely helps having people like that around. It helps practice. It helps people get better. It's great for us.
DP: When you finally get to walk on that floor over there at the State Farm Center in that jersey, what's that going to feel like?
TA: I can't even... Words can't even describe that feeling. I'm just trying to do everything I can do to make it back to that moment. But man, words can't even describe that. I can't even think about how that will be.
DP: You going to have to fight back any feelings?
TA: Yeah. Oh yeah. That will definitely be a great moment in my life and my journey.
DP: Lastly, this is your last season here. Obviously, a lot of guys want to get to the NCAA tournament -- a place that only you've been on this roster. If you're able to do that and have the type of season that you want to have, what will that mean for you? What will that mean for the program going forward?
TA: One of the main focuses right now is I want to maximize as a team. I want us to be the best team that we can possibly be. I know if we do that, we'll be where we want to go.