By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) After yet another unhappy night in Happy Valley, the Illinois basketball program is at a crossroads.
One that’s now probably covered in snow.
The Fighting Illini have a point guard problem, you see. And while there’s no clear solution to it, Illinois coach Bruce Weber still has to make a choice very soon about which road he wants to dribble down for the rest of the 2012.
Sam Maniscalco Way or Tracy Abrams Avenue.
During Thursday night’s 54-52 loss to Penn State at the Illini’s House of Horrors and Horrid Hoops, a.k.a. the Bryce-Jordan Center, Illinois’ two point guards appeared to have been lost in a blizzard on their way to the arena.
Maniscalco, the fifth-year senior transfer from Bradley, played 27 minutes and shot 0-for-5 from the field, including 0-for-3 from three-point range, for no points. He added two rebounds, three assists and two turnovers. Meanwhile, Abrams, a freshman, played 19 minutes and went 0-for-1 from the field with no points. He also compiled four rebounds, one assist, one steal and two turnovers.
For those scoring at home (or, you know, not scoring on the road), that’s a grand total of four assists, four turnovers and zero points.
The Penn State game marked Maniscalco’s return to action after a three-game absence due to lingering – and, perhaps, worsening – issues with a bad left ankle that forced him to miss all of last season at Bradley. The gritty point guard certainly appeared rusty last night vs. the Nittany Lions, but Maniscalco’s problems this season go beyond mere rust.
With the bum wheel, his offensive mobility is limited, his ability to defend is stunted and his jump shot is nearly nonexistent – not that it stops him from taking them. Early in the season when Maniscalco hit some huge shots in victories, he appeared to be a major find for Weber’s Illini. But as the season has worn on and the guard’s ankle has worn down, it’s become a chore simply finding him on the court.
As a result, I think that both for the short- and long-term, it would be wise for Weber to place Maniscalco on the shelf and give Abrams more and more of his minutes.
For the season, Maniscalco is averaging 27.6 minutes per game and scoring 9.3 points on 40.3 percent shooting to go along with 2.9 assists, 2.4 rebounds and 0.7 steals. Abrams, on the other hand, is averaging 18.9 minutes and 2.4 points on 32.7 percent shooting as well as 1.5 assists, 2.5 rebounds and 0.5 steals.
With just 21 turnovers to Abrams’ 31, Maniscalco protects the ball better than his youthful counterpart, and that’s no small thing for a team that doesn’t value possessions well. But in spite of that fact, we’ve already seen Maniscalco’s ceiling this season. That ankle isn’t going to get any better, in fact it probably will get worse.
Abrams, meanwhile, is just starting to scratch the surface of his potential and getting him increased playing time should be paramount. If this Illinois team has any chance of making March noise this season – and next – it’s going to need a point guard capable of pushing the action, playing sticky defense and protecting the basketball.
Right now, Abrams is better than Maniscalco at doing two of those things and, given time, he could potentially become a better ball-handler, too. Beyond all of that, Abrams will be also counted on next year when Illinois will return most of its roster and should be among the nation’s most talented teams. Maniscalco, whose eligibility expires this spring, will not be.
Now, the biggest argument against playing Abrams more right now – beyond his shaky ball protection – is that he’s not at all a scoring threat. But I’d argue that’s all the more reason to get him comfortable on the court.
After all, if you’ll recall, Deron Williams wasn’t much of an offensive threat himself as a freshman. In fact, he didn’t score a point during the first four Big Ten games of his rookie campaign and finished the season with just a 6.3 points-per-game average, which included him making only about half his free throws.
Now, that’s by no means to say Tracy Abrams is anything like Deron Williams or that he will be. Rather, it’s just an example of how major playing experience for a freshman point guard can pay major dividends down the road.
You can’t say the same about achy fifth-year seniors.
It’s time to start getting Abrams more minutes, Bruce.
The clock is ticking.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.