Joe Bertrand has come a lot way this year. Beginning with the Italy tour, the redshirt sophomore began to assert himself. But he had two lost years prior to that.
"I had a rough time when I came here. I got hurt freshman year and had to sit out. Last year I had to sit down and watch. But this year I got a chance to get in a game and do things.
"The older players told me they went through the same thing, had to wait for their turn. It's frustrating at times, but being patient is a really big key."
Many assumed he would transfer to another school. But he believed in himself and wanted a degree from Illinois. It is now paying off. Did he ever consider transferring?
"Not really. I was just waiting for my turn and played hard in practice. They told me they hadn't forgotten about me, that one day I would get my turn. When my chance comes, I'd better be ready. Once it came, I just took it and played my game."
His game is slashing to the basket. While he sometimes struggles with set shots, Bertrand is comfortable with floaters off penetration that find the bottom of the net with regularity. Illinois head coach Bruce Weber is impressed.
"His pull-up jumper, he gets up as high as anybody. When he jumps up there, he gets so high, it's almost like he just lays it over the rim. As long as he just stays under control and keeps things simple, he was 9 for 9, 6 for 10, 4 for 8, 4 for 8 and 11 for 12 (in his last five games). That's pretty good for anybody, so he's been effective with that."
The 6'-5" Sterling product hasn't always played with confidence, but the slashing floater is an exception for him.
"I've been doing that since fifth grade. I'm really working on my pull-up game. I've been doing it for so long, it's just part of my game. I'm gonna try to broaden my game out more. If I get out to the three point line, it will make defenses spread out, and I'll be a much better player."
The three pointer is still a work in progress.
"I know that's not really my strength, so I'll stay with my strengths. I'll leave that to D.J. (Richardson) and Brandon (Paul) to hit the threes. It's not really my strength, but I can knock them down here and there."
Classmate Paul is eager to brag how his friend has come through for the Illini lately.
"It's huge. We've got great players on the team. He stepped up for us; we had guys injured. He's the player I always knew he was, he just needed time to fill out and get more confidence. When you've got a few go-to guys, it will be tough on our opponents.
"The kid's a player. He had a minor setback his freshman year. He's one of the most patient guys I've seen. If I was in his situation, I don't know how I would have taken it. He's just grown so much and keeps learning, keeps getting better. He's hard to guard."
Confidence has been a recurring problem for Bertrand, possibly because he thinks too much instead of just letting things happen naturally. His recent success has been a boon to his psyche.
"It's definitely a confidence builder to get out there and contribute with my team. When I wasn't playing with them, it was hard watching them. But I learned a lot sitting on the bench, so when I got out there I could contribute and be a part of the team. Watching Brandon for a couple years really helped show me how to play, how to get open and not dribble so much."
Bertrand gained confidence in Italy but lost it again early in the season as self-doubt creeped back in. Weber says the first road game was tough for him.
"He's like a freshman in a lot of ways. That first road game at Maryland, that's how he played. He probably lost a little confidence. He hasn't been in these situations."
What has he done since then to turn his fortunes around?
"I take care of the ball better. I'm listening more, listening to what I need to do instead of forcing contested shots. I watched tape to see what I could do better and talked to coaches on what I can improve on. I've been playing real good in practice, trying to transfer that to the game."
Weber has begun to play "small ball" recently, inserting Bertrand into the four spot against smaller teams. He becomes a matchup problem.
"When he plays the four, he is hard to guard, just like it's hard for us to guard Robbie Hummel," Weber reminds. "He's mobile, and he's very good at straight line drives to the basket if he doesn't start spinning and trying to do too much."
Bertrand admits his path is a little less burdensome at the four, but he can take advantage of his athleticism and outstanding leaping ability at the wing spots as well.
"At the four, a bigger guy is guarding me, and I know I'm quicker than them. But at the three spot, I can come off curls, and that's also pretty easy for me to get in the lane."
Opponents are forewarned about Bertrand's srengths. They will game-plan to prevent him driving the lane. Weber wants him to expand his game to give him other options.
"If we can take another step, it's getting him off of cuts. If he can move without the ball, now it's not always off the dribble. They're gonna adjust. When they adjust, he's got to adjust too and learn to move without the basketball."
He is also becoming an asset on defense. While Meyers Leonard is credited with blocking Drew Crawford's final shot in the Northwestern game, Weber says it was Bertrand who made the play possible.
"Meyers got the block, but if you watch the tape, Joe step-slid the whole way with Crawford. He stood there big and allowed Meyers to block it. All you see is Meyers blocking the shot. Joe made a great defensive play to stay in front of Crawford. The spectacular gets on TV, but the little thing like he did was really important."
Bertrand's explanation mirrored Weber's words.
"Staying in front of your man is definitely one thing we focus on. The last play was real big for us. I stayed in front of him and bothered him a little bit so Meyers could block that shot."
The Illini are also weak rebounding the ball. Whether he plays the three or four, Weber needs him to get more rebounds.
"I really challenged him about rebounds. He got 8 rebounds against Northwestern, and that was positive. He reminded me of it the next day. So he's listening and trying to do what we're asking."
Of course, he had none against Nebraska. So that is still a work in progress as well. But going from bench warmer to the team's primary offensive weapon within one year is no easy feat. Bertrand has made tremendous progress, and the Illini are benefitting.