I wasn't able to attend or watch the first preseason game of the 2010-11 season, so I relied on peer analysis. And that peer was excited.
"Tracy Abrams is about to be everybody's favorite player," he said.
When I finally got my first glimpse at TA, I abided. He played fast and with a focus on getting to the hoop. He looked ready to throw hands with any player on any team at any time. He was tough when the rest of the roster was soft, and he was necessary.
Now, the Illini are approaching the conference season two and a half years later, and Tracy has the same base story with only a few added variables. He deserves his scrutiny as much as he deserves his praise, and opinions of players like that don't come in the unwavering variety. But since he beat Mizzou with and-one after and-one, we'll start with the good.
BEST GAMES PER SEASON
2011-12: Purdue 67, Illinois 62
Tracy Abrams stat line: 22 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist, 3 turnovers, 9-for-16 FG
Tracy Abrams story: This was the loss that finally broke Bruce Weber's spirit. He sat in the postgame press conference a dejected man, aware of his fate and helplessness. But in this game, Tracy did all he could to veer from the Weber trainwreck. He took over late, scoring 16 points in the second half and cutting a big Purdue lead down to two with less than a minute to play. He attacked the basket in a season that saw a lot of missed entry passes and a lot of forced threes. He scored 22 points in a do-or-die game when his previous career high had been nine points. He nearly righted a quickly sinking ship, at least for one night.
2012-13: Illinois 81, Auburn 79
Stat line: 27 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 turnover, 6-for-11 FG (13-15 FT)
Story: Last season had several near-devastating losses like this one that we now gleefully overlook. Illinois played Auburn at the United Center one week after the Mizzou game (not unlike this year's UIC matchup) and all the emotional drainage that comes with it. It showed. And without Abrams playing one of his best games as an Illini, it would have been a loss. His stat line tells the story because those numbers are marvelous.
2013-14: Illinois 65, Missouri 64
Stat line: 22 points, 6 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 turnover, 7-for-16 FG
Story: Down one point to the No. 23 Missouri Tigers with under 30 seconds remaining, Tracy Abrams took the ball, spun through traffic, drew the foul and sank both free throws to clinch the biggest Illini win in almost a year.
But in an alternate reality, Tracy spins through the defenders, dribbles off his foot, gives up an easy layup and loses the game. Each are equally believable because that's exactly the type of player Tracy Abrams is--the type of player who's rational confidence and irrational confidence look pretty identical. And this is only the first of his enigmas.
Every basketball talent Tracy Abrams possesses, outside of his toughness, can be present one second and absent the next. Some games, he's the most crucial player, completely carrying the offense. Other games--like against Indiana last year--he can go cold, score zero points, and the team still wins.
When he's needed, how costly his mistakes truly are, when and where he'll take over--it's all fluid, changing with each tip-off. I can't begin to understand it, although I believe it all. And a look at the statistics only furthers the mystery. His pace and shot selection has improved this year, yet his field goal percentage is down. Yet his points per game are up, as are his number of free throws. Yet his free throw percentage is down.
My opinion of Tracy Abrams is that he's incredibly vital, regardless of whether the numbers agree (or disagree). He's tough and he's got heart. So much heart.
But what do you think? Discuss.