Illini carry one point guard heading into season

They say one is the loneliest number, but Tracy Abrams doesn’t believe it.

The sophomore guard has every reason to feel isolated, but that’s just not him.

New Illini head coach John Groce knows there’s no sense hiding the obvious: There’s only one true point guard on the Illini’s roster and his new up-tempo system will require Abrams — his lone primary ballhandler — to run like he’s never been asked before.

Because of his system, Groce’s off-season program has emphasized conditioning above all else. Redshirt junior guard Joseph Bertrand said he’s run so much he can’t even keep track of distances anymore.

They’re not in Kansas (State) anymore.

Former Illini head coach Bruce Weber’s motion offense is out and ball screens, spacing and running are in. While senior shooting guard Brandon Paul is expected to slide over and assist Abrams at point guard, the sophomore is going to be handed huge minutes over the course of the season. But in truth, Abrams is excited to get back to a quicker tempo offense like the one he ran in high school and on his Chicago AAU team.

“I think for me and my position, it’s better,” Abrams said. “It’s all learning right now for us. ... I’m not even thinking about minutes.”

That kind of attitude is what Abrams’ teammates love about him. It’s how he got the nickname “The Bulldog” after he was forced to play crucial minutes in the second half of his freshman year because of an ankle injury to senior guard Sam Maniscalco. It’s how Groce feels comfortable heading into battle with a sophomore as his floor general. Most importantly, it’s why Abrams was voted by his teammates as the 2011-12 Illini basketball MVP despite averaging just 4.3 points per game and 1.9 assists.

In a season derailed by a number of problems, Abrams set the standard for how to handle his business, and his teammates recognized him for it.

“He just shows good leadership,” Bertrand said. “He’s a natural leader. I remember the first time he came down here on his visit, we had him over at our house. We talked a lot about basketball. He’s really passionate about the game and that really transferred over to last season.”

Abrams never had time to ease into the college game like the other sophomores in his class. He was thrust into action last season, playing in all 32 games while learning the job of a Big Ten point guard on the fly. Although it wasn’t always pretty, the experience he gained last season, paired with offseason improvements to his jump shot, has him feeling confident for his larger role this season.

“I know I’m just a sophomore guard, but I need to present myself as the leader of this team,” Abrams said. “The older, experienced guys helped me out a lot, but now being the point guard and knowing I’m going to have the ball in my hands a lot, I have to be vocal.”

Ethan can be reached at asofsky1@ and @asofthesky.