CHAMPAIGN — In basketball, situations don’t get much tougher than the one Tracy Abrams is going through.
For the second straight season, Abrams’ senior year has been wiped out due to a summertime injury. Last year, it was an ACL tear. This year, it’s a ruptured Achilles tendon. For the second straight season, Abrams has had basketball taken away from him. For the second straight season, the Illini will have to make do without their floor general.
But while Abrams’ situation is one of extreme misfortune, he’s not sulking. In fact, the way he’s handling this — again — is inspiring his teammates.
“A lot of people, after the first time, would’ve just shut down,” junior guard Jaylon Tate said. “For him to have it happen two years in a row, it’s crazy. You would think he would shut down, but he doesn’t, he’s so mentally tough and confident and humble. And it really encourages me.”
“He’s been awesome handling things,” junior guard Kendrick Nunn said. “You wouldn’t even tell that it’s bothering him, to be honest. He’s been a great guy, he’s still been leading us. He’s been giving me tips and things like that. He’s like a big brother.”
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Getting down in the dumps isn’t really Abrams’ style. Tate is right, these consecutive blows would be sure to depress many, and that depression would be warranted. But not Abrams. The Mount Carmel product isn’t taking sadness for an answer. He’s staying positive. It might be unexpected, but that’s just who Abrams is.
“I’m just taking it as it is. All I can do is keep pushing,” he said. “I can’t control it, I can’t rewind it and make myself healthy. I accept it. ‘What’s next?’ That’s how I’ve been looking at it.”
Abrams’ injury is hardly the only one the Illini are dealing with during this somewhat chaotic offseason. In addition to losing Abrams for the year, heralded freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands has been sidelined with a stress-fracture in his leg. Thursday, head coach John Groce announced that Tate has been out the past few days while recovering from a concussion and that sophomore forward Leron Black tore his meniscus and will be out a month or more recovering from surgery.
The news on Coleman-Lands has been good: He won’t miss the season, and Groce said he’s could return for the season-opener on Nov. 13. But that’s no guarantee. And this missed time for a freshman preparing for his first season of college basketball could have longer-lasting effects.
“We have a plan in place for him. It is what it is. We’re going to do what’s right. If he’s ready to go — which we anticipate — well before we play our first game, awesome. If he’s not, am I going to play a guy who’s hurt? No,” Groce said. “Believe me, I wanted him playing yesterday, I want Black playing tomorrow. But it just kind of is what it is with those guys. Do I think that he’s on track to play clearly before or on the first home-game date? No question. But that’s as of today. Bodies are dynamic.”
Coleman-Lands himself is following Abrams’ lead and staying positive about his injury. Unable to play with his teammates during the team’s summer trip to Europe, Coleman-Lands just recently began “progressing back to basketball activities.” Groce said Thursday that he won’t be full go until Nov. 1.
But the experience has yielded benefits for the much-hyped freshman.
“I feel like it’s strengthened me mentally and spiritually,” Coleman-Lands said. “I don’t question my ability to play, I’m not worried about coming back and having to worry about an injury. But right now I’m just focused on mentally, staying positive, so I can help my teammates out during this injury rather than even later. I feel like it’s all about now and what I can do. I don’t want to be negative around my teammates. I’ll definitely be positive in any way possible.
“I’m finding out more about myself. I feel like it’s helped me cherish the game more and be more appreciative of what I do have.”
With all this uncertainty about a month away from the season-opener, the Illini can’t exactly lock in their lineup. Obviously, the team will be without Abrams. It could be without Black, another starter, and Coleman-Lands, too. It means adaptation, and it means the use of that classic sports cliche: next man up.
It’s cliche, indeed, and the Illini — between Groce and the players — must’ve used it 100 times during Thursday’s media day. But it’s a cliche for a reason because it’s also an important mentality to have. A team can’t get bogged down with the loss of an important piece or multiple important pieces. It could stall the season before it starts.
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The Illini experienced a lot of it last season. Abrams missed the season, and perhaps the team’s best player, Rayvonte Rice, missed nine straight games in the heart of Big Ten play with an injury and then a suspension. If there are some silver linings to this season’s rash of injuries, one is that this team knows how to deal with them.
“I think last year certainly helps,” Groce said. “The ‘next man up’ philosophy of — we can control what we can control. Getting the next guy, that’s what we practice. It means increased opportunities and reps for other guys, and when that door opens for those guys, we want them to sprint through that door, knock that door down. They’ve worked hard and prepared themselves, as well, and the next guy’s got to be ready to go. That’s all you can do is control what you can control.”
“Coach always talks about it, and it’s actually true in the locker room. It’s a ‘next guy up’ mentality,” Abrams said. “You can’t control who’s going to be healthy, when he’s going to be healthy. When it’s your time, hopefully you’re ready.”
Abrams’ injury started this string of medical misfortunes for Illinois this offseason, but as the guy who’s been with this program the longest, his matter-of-fact handling of an unfortunate situation could be the thing that allows this team to survive these early hardships.
Though Abrams said he’s not doing it on purpose, teammates acknowledged that his attitude during his recovery is giving the team an easier feeling about being without him and the other injured players, and that’s a very valuable thing.
“He gives us that confidence,” Tate said. “He tells us, ‘Don’t worry about me. I want you all to do good. I’m here for you all.’ He was good at that last year. We’ve got a lot of good players. Guys are going to step up, I’m confident in that.”
“I definitely don’t put that pressure on myself,” Abrams said. “Honestly, I’m just, ‘It is what it is.’ I go to rehab, put in the work, I’ll be fine. That’s how I’m looking at it. Every day I’m looking at it like: ‘Do the rehab, you’ll be fine. Go to practice.’ That’s my world.
"That’s just me.”