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One last ride with Tracy Abrams

The sixth-year point guard was the only bright spot in Illinois’ 75-55 loss to Michigan on Thursday

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Illinois vs Michigan Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

History will probably not be kind to Tracy Abrams.

He never averaged more than 10.7 points per game in his career at Illinois, no more than 3.5 rebounds per game or 3.4 assists per game. Even with a torrid shooting percentage from behind the arc this season, the sixth-year guard is only 31.1 percent from three-point range for his career. Even this year, he’s shooting a career-high at 41.2 percent from the field. He shoots too much for a guy that usually doesn’t have the touch to finish.

Moving on from individual statistics, Abrams’ teams will have made the NCAA tournament just once in his six years in Champaign. He’ll probably be most remembered for what he didn’t do.

A missed floater against Michigan in the Big Ten tournament in 2014 that would have won the game. A missed layup against Rutgers this season before the Scarlet Knights put a dagger into Illinois’ NCAA hopes. To sum it up, a good friend of mine, and fellow Illini fan, called Abrams “a perennial loser.”

But performances like Thursday’s 23-point effort, on 9 of 13 shooting highlight why Tracy Abrams is my favorite player of the Bruce Weber/John Groce era.

I came to the University of Illinois in the fall of 2011 — the same year that Abrams did. That’s when I first started following Illini basketball seriously as a fan. Abrams joined the Illini as part of a six-man recruiting class; one of four four-stars along with Nnanna Egwu, Mike Shaw and Myke Henry.

I immediately took to Abrams because of his bulldog attitude on defense. Even as a freshman in the most physical conference in the country, Abrams went chest to chest with Big Ten point guards, hounding and harassing them for every step. For those that prefer statistics to years-old anecdotes, Abrams recorded a 1.3 DBPM as a freshman, as well as 0.7 defensive win shares.

During the dying gasp of Weber’s tenure at Illinois, at times it seemed like Abrams was the only one who actually cared out on the court. Even when the team’s performance slipped, Abrams’ effort never did — which endeared him to fans such as myself. His defense only improved, as he sliced his fouls from 4.3 per 40 minutes as a freshman to 2.9 per 40 as a junior.

Fast forward to the injuries. If you’ve listened to an Illinois broadcast this season, you’ve heard ad nauseam about Abrams’ struggles with injuries. He tore his ACL in 2014, followed by an Achilles tear the following year. Both are severe injuries that could have ended his career. Or at least robbed him of the athleticism and quickness that made him stauch defensively and allowed him to slither into the lane on offense.

But Abrams came back, sparing Illini fans from another year of “Jaylon Tate being forced to play real minutes.” And he was far from the same player as he was before, but he evolved. Abrams still held the same toughness, grit and DGAF attitude that meant he wasn’t ever intimidated by opponents.

To start the 2016 year, Abrams came out of the Illini robotics lab with machinated limbs and the laser shooting ability of Steph Curry. The grad student canned an incredible 59.7 percent of his threes in the nonconference after never shooting higher than 27.2 percent from deep at any point in his career. He dropped 31 on Central Michigan and canned seven of eight treys.

Of course it wasn’t sustainable.

He slumped massively to start Big Ten play, and lost his starting position to a freshman in Te’Jon Lucas. Abrams played just three minutes against Minnesota on Feb. 4. Imagine the disappointment after two full years of rehab to only come back and not be playing while still healthy.

It would have been so easy to pack it in. Most of Illini Nation had given up on the team by the beginning of February.

But Abrams isn’t a quitter. He snapped out of the funk by hitting a three in each of the Illini’s last eight games. He drained four triples and posted 13/4/6 in a road win over Nebraska.

Which leads us the to Michigan game Thursday. It looked like the script I had seen many times in recent years. Illinois was down 31-11 in the first half, and it was turning into a laugher real quick.

Abrams went on a 10-0 run by himself, hitting a three, draining a jumper and then another. He sliced down the lane for a layup and the foul to bring Illinois within 10. But Abrams picked up his second foul of the half 10 seconds later, and Groce sent him to the bench. (For those wondering, Abrams has fouled out twice in his career and finished with two fouls on the game). Momentum lost, game eventually lost.

Tracy Abrams isn’t the best player in the past few years of Illinois basketball. In fact, he’s probably the third or fourth best player on this year’s team. His statistics paint the picture of just an average Big Ten player, like countless before him and countless that will come after. Teams that he was on will have the legacy of underperforming.

But his resiliency and heart are the two things he has at the highest level.

Illinois is going to the NIT, another huge disappoint for the team and fans alike, which means that Abrams’ long career has at least one more game in it.

Abrams might score 25 again. He might only score four. I don’t care. I always want Tracy Abrams on my team.