Tuesday's news that Tracy Abrams will miss his second straight should've-been-senior season had to have an upsetting impact on anyone who heard it.
And, unsurprisingly, Abrams himself took the news very hard, so Illinois head coach John Groce told reporters after the team announced that a torn Achilles will sideline Abrams for the entirety of the 2015-16 campaign. It's brutal news after Abrams missed all of the 2014-15 season recovering from a torn ACL.
"(He's) emotional, obviously," Groce said Tuesday. "I commend him for the effort that he put forth to come back from the ACL. He did everything that we asked him to do and then some. He's very diligent about it, very professional about it, as you can imagine, extremely responsible. He's a pro's pro in everything that he does. To go through that, work his way back, do everything that he did and then (be) the first player that I've ever coached have two back-to-back season-ending injuries ... is a lot for him to have to digest.
"As I told the guys, he's hurting right now. We're less than 24 hours from the injury, and that's natural. He's invested so much in this, in his time here and in this team. He's come back, and that's natural. If he didn't feel that way, I'd be surprised. We're going to try to figure it out. That's our deal, we're solutions-oriented, and we're going to all continue to be there for him and love him and do the best we can as a group to serve him and care for him, just like he does for his teammates and our staff."
Abrams was supposed to return after his missed season and provide the Illini with a much-needed senior leader at the point guard position. Instead, he'll have surgery next Wednesday and be once again limited to a spot on the bench in street clothes. When asked if Abrams will pursue a sixth year of eligibility via an NCAA waiver — something that based on prior similar circumstances across college athletics would not be surprising — Groce said, "We haven't even crossed that bridge yet."
The loss of this veteran presence is toughest emotionally for the Illini, but there's a pretty important basketball impact, as well. In what many expect to be a make-or-break season for Groce, he's once again forced to scramble to come up with an on-court replacement for the injured Abrams. Last season, point guard duties went to guys like Ahmad Starks and Jaylon Tate, who weren't as well suited for those roles. Starks' eligibility is exhausted. Tate is the most likely candidate to be thrown back into the fire, though he struggled mightily at times last season.
One positive is that the Illini's upcoming European trip will allow Groce and his coaching staff a little extra time to evaluate what they've got and even a few games to test out what the team could look like sans Abrams.
"We're going to exercise all options at this point," Groce said. "It's pretty fresh, within 24 hours. We've had different guys on our mind that we've thought (about). The great thing for us is we get these foreign trip practices. Including our two hours that we're allowed by the NCAA, we get nine more opportunities to work with them here moving forward leading up to August the ninth. So we'll be able to experiment a little bit. We certainly see that as a benefit that we would not have normally. So that part's good, and we'll see if we can figure it out."
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Groce raved a season ago about Abrams' continued leadership even though he wasn't on the court with his teammates. Abrams will likely do something similar this season, though he won't be going on the trip, something Groce isn't thrilled about.
"It would not be in his best interest medically or from a health perspective to do that. Again, that's my biggest concern," Groce said. "I don't like that because his experience level, his leadership capabilities, his toughness have been well documented, well displayed over a long period of time. So I would love for him to be with us, but it's just not in his best interest at this point."
Regardless of who ends up filling in for Abrams, the decision will be an important one. Most see the outcome of this season as critical for Groce's future in Champaign. After an NCAA tournament appearance in his first season, Groce has gone without an invitation to the Big Dance in each of the last two years. Last season finished on a sour note, with blowout losses to Michigan and Alabama in the Big Ten Tournament and NIT, respectively.