Point guard's growth key over final two months of the season.

 

The Illinois basketball season may boil down to freshman point guard Tracy Abrams.

The more Abrams can learn, the less dependent the Illini will remain on senior Sam Maniscalco, who already missed three games this month with ankle pain and the team's exhibitions in November. There's only so much Maniscalco's ankle can take, so the development of Abrams may determine the path for the Illini over the next two months.

"That's the key to the season,'' said Stephen Bardo, the former Illini guard who worked Illinois' 54-52 loss at Penn State Thursday as an ESPN2 analyst. "He's learning from Sam, but he had a trial under fire. He's getting that right now.''

Granted, there's always a desire to get the ball more to a talented big man like Illini center Meyers Leonard, and guard Brandon Paul has more demands from the Illini on both ends of the floor. Yet decisions must be made at point guard.

Illinois is like every team in the league. They all have a weakness. Even Ohio State is no longer the dominating force. There's no denying that when Maniscalco's ankle wasn't bothering him earlier this season, he was productive and a playmaker. Point guard was a position of strength.

With Maniscalco slowed, it left Abrams in a crash course and Paul handling more duties on both ends of the court.

No. 22 Illinois (15-4 overall, 4-2 in the Big Ten) hosts Wisconsin (15-5, 4-3) Sunday (1 p.m., BTN).

Following a solid game against Ohio State when Abrams' best contribution was cutting down on the mistakes, he struggled against Penn State. In 19 minutes, Abrams appeared hurried, lost two turnovers and didn't score.

With Abrams out of sync, Maniscalco logged 27 minutes -- nearly double the 10 to 15 minutes set as a goal. He also failed to score and lost two turnovers. The bottom line with Abrams/Maniscalco: no points, four assists, four turnovers. In the head-to-head with Penn State's Tim Frazier (12 points, nine assists, four turnovers), the Illini lost the battle at that position.

Maniscalco clearly lost his timing and conditioning by sitting 2 1/2 weeks, but he was left to take a shot to force overtime in the final seconds against Penn State.

His runner near the lane was blocked, and it harmlessly bounced toward Illini coach Bruce Weber.

Heading into the season, Weber wanted Maniscalco to play 25 minutes a game with Abrams getting 15. Times have changed.

"It's probably got to be 25 (for) Tracy and 15 to 18 (for) Sam,'' Weber said.

Michigan's season took off with freshman Trey Burke, who helped the Wolverines overcome the loss of Darius Morris to the NBA. Burke is a strong candidate for freshman of the year in the Big Ten.

Abrams isn't Burke, Bardo said, "but he doesn't have to be. He just needs to get the ball where it needs to go, not turn it over and be a scoring threat.''

Abrams isn't much of a concern for opposing defenses while averaging 2.4 points while shooting 32 percent from the field and 20 percent from the 3-point line. He has 29 assists and 31 turnovers. If Abrams' growth could match the improvement of Illini wing Joe Bertrand, Illinois would stay in the Big Ten race, Bardo said.

Maniscalco is fighting his own battle with that ankle, and Paul already has plenty on his plate.

NOTE: Illinois' game against Wisconsin Sunday is a sellout, the first in Assembly Hall this season. Tickets remain for the other five home games. . .    John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie.