If Bertrand delivers, Illini basketball can easily exceed expectations
BY HERB GOULD For Sun-Times Media October 31, 2013 9:13PM
Updated: December 2, 2013 12:49PM
You have an idea of what Illinois is going to get from returning starters Nnanna Egwu and Tracy Abrams. And you know what it’s hoping to get from its boatload of newcomers.
The mystery man is the Illini’s fifth-year senior from Sterling. The team’s senior senator is so much the X-factor that we ought to call him Joseph X. Bertrand.
On a team that must replace two perimeter players — Brandon Paul (16.6 points a game) and D.J. Richardson (12.3) — who accounted for 42 percent of its scoring, the 6-6 Bertrand might be the XYZ factor.
That’s especially true because Bertrand has alternated between factor and non-factor so often, it’s hard to know what to expect. He’s tantalized with enough big games and highlight moves that make people wonder what would happen if he delivered consistently.
John Groce isn’t going to put that scoring burden on Bertrand, though. What the second-year coach wants from his 2012-2013 sixth man is leadership.
‘‘Vocal leadership,’’ Groce said Thursday at Big Ten media day at the Hyatt O’Hare. ‘‘I told Joe, ‘You’ve been through ups. You’ve been through downs. You’re older than me. You’ve seen it all in college basketball. It’d be a shame if you didn’t share that in a vocal way with our fresh faces.’ If you share like that, not only are our younger guys going to grow. But he’s going to grow by giving.’’
That’s a good policy, especially when dealing with an unassuming young man who’s not all that comfortable with the spotlight.
‘‘I’m not really one of the guys to hunt down shots,’’ said Bertrand, who averaged 7.3 points a game last year. ‘‘Whatever I have, I take. I don’t want to force anything.’’
And those are pretty much his marching orders from Groce and his staff.
‘‘They just let me play my game,’’ Bertrand said. ‘‘He knows how I play. He pushes me toward working within the system.’’
That said, the Illini know Bertrand’s potential.
‘‘You have to figure out that balance of being aggressive, but letting the game come to you,’’ Groce said. ‘‘But in terms of his explosive playmaking ability, he’s so athletic, so physically strong and explosive, that he has ‘Wow!’ plays. I wish I could jump that high and dunk on somebody like that.’’
Egwu sees signs that Bertrand has grasped the big picture — that it’s his turn. His last turn.
‘‘He’s more of a leader this year,’’ Egwu said. ‘‘He’s a fifth-year senior. He has to be. He plays so hard in every practice. He understands that he has to lead by example, to show the young guys how we do things around here. This is Joe’s last year. He’s going to fight as hard as he can.’’
Outsiders aren’t expecting Illinois to reach the round of 32 in the NCAA tournament again. But the Illini are.
‘‘That’s definitely the plan,’’ said Bertrand, mentioning Jon Ekey, the Illinois State grad-student transfer. ‘‘With me and Ekey being fifth-year seniors, we want to go out with a bang, have our best year. We’re working hard every day to accomplish that goal. How far we can go is up to us.’’
Senior leadership made all the difference last year, Egwu said.
‘‘One thing I’ll always remember is how we didn’t quit,’’ the 6-11 junior said. ‘‘When were 2-7 in the Big Ten, it seemed like, ‘Here we go again.’ But Brandon, D.J., Tyler [Griffey] and Sam [McLaurin] understood. Those guys were not going to go out without a fight — and we made that run. That was the fun part about it. We never gave up.’’
If Bertrand can find that kind of fire, scoring is likely to come as naturally as the ups and downs of the past.