It's a good thing Illinois is so deep in the backcourt entering the season because the Illini learned Thursday that they won't have one of their key perimeter players from last year.
Tracy Abrams, a senior who started all 35 games at point guard last season, tore the ACL in his right knee during a workout earlier this week and will miss the entire 2014-15 season, the school announced Thursday.
"Tracy worked hard in the offseason to put himself in great position heading into his senior year, so he's obviously disappointed, and we are for him as well," Illinois coach John Groce said in a statement. "But Tracy personifies toughness; he has the heart of a champion, and I know that he will only come back stronger from this experience when he returns to the court next year. In the meantime, he will continue to play a vital role for our program with his leadership."
Having Abrams back for the 2015-16 season is small consolation for an Illinois team eager to return to the NCAA tournament after settling for an NIT bid last season. The 6-foot-2 senior averaged 10.7 points and a team-high 3.2 assists last season, showcasing an ability to set up his teammates for easy baskets, take care of the ball and play fierce on-ball defense.
The player likely to inherit a starting job in Abrams' place is Oregon State transfer Ahmad Starks, a speedy 5-foot-9 senior who averaged 10.4 points two seasons ago for the Beavers but also fell out of the starting lineup by the end of that season. Starks shot below 40 percent from the field all three seasons at Oregon State, struggled defensively at times because of his size and tended to look for his own shot a bit too often, a trait that led him to produce three or less assists in all but six games as a junior.
In addition to Starks, sophomore point guard Jaylon Tate and Seton Hall transfer Aaron Cosby will probably play increased roles because of Abrams' absence. Tate is a natural point guard who made good decisions in limited playing time last season, while Cosby is a pure shooter capable of handling the ball in a pinch too if need be.
Where the Illini will most need Starks, Tate and Cosby to fill Abrams' shoes is in his ability to take care of the ball, distribute and defend. The Illini still have plenty of perimeter scoring weapons at wing from leading scorer Rayvonte Rice, to promising sophomore Malcolm Hill, to sharpshooters Cosby and Kendrick Nunn.
Entering the season, the biggest question facing the Illini had been the frontcourt, where they will have to count on several freshmen to make an immediate contribution. So Abrams' injury doesn't change Illinois' outlook all that much. It just adds a new area of concern.
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