Illinois point guards struggling to fill Abrams’ shoes

By Joey Figueroa

tweet: #Illini point guards not quite filling the hole left by Tracy Abrams

By Joey Figueroa

Staff Writer

Tracy Abrams has been missing from Illinois basketball’s starting lineup for two seasons.

It’s obvious that Abrams’ stay on the sidelines is unfortunate for all parties involved. The amount of mental fortitude and perseverance necessary for Abrams to remain a leader and voice for the Illini while grinding through back-to-back major tears cannot be understated.

While Abrams’ handling of his rehab rightfully remains behind the scenes, the hole he left on the court is apparent — and fill-in point guards Jaylon Tate and Khalid Lewis have struggled to climb out of it.

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In Abrams’ absence, head coach John Groce has somewhat adjusted his offensive schemes to downplay the point guard role and has outlined a specific evaluation method for Tate and Lewis.

“The main thing is they’ve got to defend, take care of the ball, make our team better and be vocal,” Groce said. “That’s how those guys are being evaluated.”

It has been two years since Groce has had a floor general like Abrams, so these criteria make sense in order to judge usual backups playing in expanded roles. But focusing purely on Groce’s standards, Tate and Lewis haven’t necessarily stacked up – at least, not according to the numbers.

Defensively, Illinois has been a revolving door for opposing perimeter players. In the Big Ten, the Illini are next-to-last in opponents’ field goal percentage and points allowed. Of course, that’s an issue that goes beyond Tate and Lewis’ control, but neither have helped improve the porous defense.

In conference play, only freshman guard Jalen Coleman-Lands has a worse defense rating — the estimated number of points allowed per 100 possessions — than Tate at 111.2. Groce has acknowledged that Lewis is the better defender, but with a 109.3 defensive rating, he isn’t much of an improvement. 

In his three combined years, Abrams has an average defensive rating of 101.1.

On the offensive end, it’s clear neither Tate nor Lewis are scorers. The duo is a combined 1-for-8 from 3-point range and combines for an average of 5.5 points per game in Big Ten play. But Groce doesn’t care about how many points they score — he cares about how well they take care of the ball.

Although Tate leads the Big Ten with a 33-to-10 CHECK STATS AFTER RUTGERS assist-to-turnover ratio in conference play, a closer look at the numbers indicates he isn’t as careful with the rock as it seems. 

For every 100 plays, Tate turns the ball over an estimated 28 percent of the time, which is the Illini’s highest rate. Paired with his team-low usage rate — Tate uses an estimated eight percent of Illinois’ offensive plays while on the floor — Tate turns the ball a lot relative to how much it’s in his hands.

To put that into perspective, Abrams has a usage rate of 20.8 percent in 54 career conference games and turns the ball over at a rate nine points lower than Tate. Lewis is the better option in this regard, with an 11.7 usage rate and 18.3 turnover rate in seven Big Ten contests.

In terms of the voice Tate and Lewis bring to the court, only Groce can be the judge of that criterion. He said Tate has had great command of late and especially liked how he led huddles during last week’s loss to Ohio State. Groce said Lewis’ voice isn’t quite there — but that can be expected from a transfer player in his first and only year with a new squad.

It seems Illinois doesn’t have much of a choice but to rely on Tate and Lewis and hope Abrams can avoid any setbacks on his way to returning next season.

Until then, Groce will continue to try to get the most out of the available options.

“I’m asking them to do what they do well and bring that to the table,” Groce said. “They know that.”

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