Illinois basketball coach Bruce Weber was pleased with the progress of his young team on its recent Italy trip. And he was especially pleased returning squadman Joe Bertrand was able to blossom. The Illini need upperclassman leadership, and he demonstrated his readiness to aid the cause.
"He made his shots, that's the biggest thing. For the most part, he shot really well; 19 for 31 for 61% is pretty good. He had some layups, but he can get to the lane, little pull-ups, tip-ins.
"Each guy's got to find his niche, and those are things he can do. He was positive in assists to turnovers, 12 to 7, so that was good. I hope it's a nice confidence-builder for him."
The 24-second clock benefitted the Illini effort to get out in transition. That is Bertrand's game.
"It's gonna help him when the game is up and down. Every possession, we yelled, 'Push! Run!' Can you do that against Wisconsin? You can do it, but they're still gonna walk it up. If we can be aggressive and get the ball into ball handlers hands...We trapped off and on, we tried a lot of different things. That's where somebody like Joe can be pretty productive.
"I think he's got to find something in the offense, tight curls where he gets in the paint, ball screens, different things. And we've got to help him too, to where he's good at it. We haven't been good getting to the paint, but he can get to the paint. (He can) get to the basket, offensive rebounds, transition."
"He got here late. He had some tendinitis in his knees. But we need him. Definitely, he's a big body. He's very physical, he doesn't back down. He's one guy that searches out rebounds. I thought he rebounded well for his minutes. That's his strength, using his body, rebounding.
"He's got to figure out a post move, some things offensively he can do. But that will come with time. Even when we did practice when he got here in July, he had so much going on. He had a class that went on basically the whole day, a four week class. He was working, his knees were bad. So his was a crash course.
"He's a tremendous kid. He probably enjoyed the trip more than anybody. Enjoying every site, talking to the tour leader, asking questions, whatever. I like him. He gives us something we really haven't had. He and Nnanna are both very physical. I think that's gonna help Meyers and Tyler down the road."
Sophomore center Leonard can be a major factor for the Illini this year. A recent injury may have contributed to inconsistent play, until late in the final game of the trip.
"Meyers had a great spring, he had a great experience with USA basketball. He came back and hurt his MCL, and he was very tentative. And on the trip also. When I had a choice between him and Ibby, I tried to play Ibby as much as I could.
"I really liked that the last game Meyers stepped up when we needed and made plays down the stretch of the game. I hope it's a nice confidence-builder for him and for us as a staff.
"I'm not worried about defending the post. We have some length, we have some size. Meyers finally the last game, last quarter, stepped up. He blocked 3 or 4 shots, ended up with 10 on the MATTO. He really changed the game. He played the way we wanted him to.
"When he wants to, he can get things done. He's got to approach the game much more seriously and understand you've got to play hard all the time. That will be the key to his success."
Leonard needs to become a force on the defensive boards, as do several of his teammates.
"Defensive rebounding is one thing we have to address. It's got to be something we get better at. Part of getting rebounds is guards. The big guys have got to do their job, but our guards have to rebound too."
Junior shooting guard D.J. Richardson also struggled on the trip. Weber believes point guards Sam Maniscalco and Tracy Abrams can help Richardson with his outside shot, and better screening can help the Peorian find openings in the defense.
"I think once Sammy and Tracy get a better feel for how to penetrate and kick out, I think that will help D.J. When we get D.J. running, I think we've got some guys who will set some screens. Nnanna, Tyler is not afraid to hit somebody. I think we can get D.J. running off screens to get him open and get some shots."
In an effort to give all 12 players equal playing time, Weber platooned them in groups of five. He also did this to experiment with using more players this season and forcing the action through defensive pressure and more transition. Does Weber plan to use a longer bench this year?
"I hope so. I think as a staff we got to watch, we got to experiment, we got to know them. I know I can play 10. I think I can squeeze in 11, but it would be hard to play 12. There's just not enough minutes.
"And then when you consider Wisconsin or Ohio State, teams that really value the ball and take care of it, the number of possessions (is lower). The 24 second shot clock made a difference, the style of play made a difference. But I think it's something we can use in the way we attack people.
"The whole thing is, they've got to produce. The other part of it, and I talked to some coaches over the summer that play a lot of guys, they said the key as a coach is learning to get your guys you feel most confident about in there at the end of the game. You've got to rotate them, watch them.
"I think the biggest thing when playing all those guys and getting the right units is finding enough people to score. I know we can put units in there who can guard. Can we put the right units in there to score? And we have to get some post play, some inside scoring. That would help."
This Illini team appears capable of defending the way Weber always prefers, hard-nosed and aggressive. It is a true blue collar team, even to the point of lacking scoring finesse at times.
"We've got guys that have a defensive mentality and play their butts off. So it's very positive. It's exciting. We held people to 39%, 33% from three. But if we failed at anything, it was getting out to the three point shooters.
"Now, can we score? That'll be the big thing. We got steals, we got in transition more, we got offensive rebounds. We got to the free throw line a little more, especially Tyler on offensive rebounds. We've got to find a couple more guys to get to the free throw line. My concerns are shooting and rebounding."
Weber summarizes the Italy trip.
"It was a great trip, a great group. It makes you feel good. We are 8 weeks away from practice, but there are some areas we can attack the next 8 weeks as we approach the practice.
"Overall, just a spectacular 10 days with some great memories. But the biggest thing on a trip is, will it pay dividends when you get into the season? That's what we'll have to see."