Joe Bertrand got a slow start to his Illinois basketball career. He injured his knee freshman preseason and spent the rest of the year recovering from surgery. That also put him behind the learning curve since he couldn't practice with the team.
Last year as a redshirt freshman, he was literally starting over. With four established senior starters, and classmates Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson playing ahead of him, he saw minimal playing time. He was in a vicious cycle. He needed confidence to play well, but he needed playing time to gain confidence. So it was a second year of biding his time, waiting for an opportunity.
Fortunately for Bertrand, the loss of five top players and an influx of six freshmen who didn't understand Illini schemes transformed him into one of team's more experienced players.
"It feels real good to be one of the upperclassmen finally. Just leading the young guys, showing them what to do. That's the main difference."
He is finding that he learns and improves his own game through sharing his knowledge with others.
"Yeah, you kind of see what you do to help the other guys out. It's definitely been helping me.
"It makes you focus more on what you need to do about building up their confidence. Sometimes they'll get frustrated when they're not doing something right. I tell them it's they're first time doing it, and they're gonna make mistakes just like I did when I was younger. You let them know it will get better and they will learn."
Bertrand has discovered to his delight his own confidence is improving simply by serving as a role model and aid for the younger players. And since the team needs him more, he feels more a part of the team.
"Definitely. I'm definitely playing with a lot more confidence. The Italy trip really helped me out, getting minutes and playing basketball like I know I can."
Bertrand always seemed shy and uncertain in practice and games, but that is becoming less a problem as his team role increases.
"I hadn't really been on the court for awhile. The first two years, I couldn't really play like I wanted to. Getting out on the court and playing with guys that had been out here so long really helped me."
The new Illini playing style is also a boon to Bertrand's game. The long, athletic 6'-5" Sterling graduate prospers in a full court pressing style with lots of transition. He is at his best in transition.
"We played really fast in Italy. Defense was picking up, we were getting turnovers and helping our teammates."
Bertrand has always been a good passer; he played a lot of point guard in high school. Illinois coach Bruce Weber believes he can help more at a wing; he has background there also.
"I played wing in AAU and high school, so I'm used to it now. I'm kind of a combo guard and can play either position."
Another way Bertrand can help the Illini is his ability to slash to the basket for layins, dunks and short jumpers. He either creates open shots for himself or, if the defense collapses on him, he can dish to an open teammate. He will likely go to the free throw line often, something more Illini need to do.
"Yeah, definitely, getting into the lane and creating for my teammates, finishing at the rim. I like that."
Bertrand is optimistic for the coming season.
"Everybody's coming along real good. We're really working good together. Everybody likes each other, which is a good thing. The young guys are learning the game like they need to be.
"We'll probably take it slow at the beginning, break down everything and show them how to do it. But we're really coming along as a team."