Bertrand, Ekey to the 'Real World'

Joe Bertrand and Jon Ekey exit as the only seniors on this season's team. What will they be remembered for?

As Joe Bertrand started a slow shuffle to the bus following the season-ending loss at Clemson he let out a blast of reality.

"Off to the real world," he said.

Soon thereafter, fellow exiting senior Jon Ekey tweeted: "It's been a fun ride… Thank you to everyone I ever met."

Immediately following the NIT loss, Bertrand and Ekey were the only two Illinois players definitely not coming back.

Bertrand spent five years practicing at Ubben and playing in the Big Ten. A knee injury forced him to redshirt his first season on campus. From there, he started some, but mostly came off the bench, sometimes scoring and occasionally wowing with highlight dunks and feats of athleticism.

Bertrand averaged over eight points and nearly four rebounds a game in his last season, career highs in both categories.

He was asked for his perspective on the season immediately following the one-point loss to the Tigers.

"It's been an up and down year for us, but we kept our head up," he said. "We kind of dug ourselves out of a little hole during the middle of the year. It just shows we have a lot of tough guys and guys that can play and play different roles on the team.That's really going to pay off in the future."

Ekey's Illini story is shorter yet still interesting.

He transferred from Illinois State with immediate eligibility, a much needed stopgap as John Groce's roster went through a transition in his second season.

A forward with 3-point range, the Independence, Mo. product completed his Illini tenure with 7.3 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. He connected on 36 percent of his 3-pointers, clearly the most reliable shooter from deep by season's end.

"It was one of those things where walking off the court, it hurt losing but after we got to the tunnel is when it kind of hit that I wouldn't be on a college court playing," Ekey said.

So what will these guys be most remembered for? Time will tell. Individually speaking, Bertrand's 10-point flurry and acrobatic and-one lay-up in the win against Georgia Tech in 2012 is something to hold on to.

Ekey's buzzer-beater 3 for the win at Iowa is his iconic moment. The two are also linked by a mid-season switch that worked out for the best. Bertrand and Ekey were replaced in the starting lineup by freshmen Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill in February. The move came after eight straight losses and propelled the Illini to wins in seven of their final 11 games.

Whether Bertrand and Ekey viewed the change as a demotion or privately objected to it is not known. Both said the right things to the press and made the necessary adjustments to make the most of their new roles.

It took Bertrand more time than Ekey, but by season's end both were contributing and leading in the manner Groce needed.

"Bertrand and Ekey exemplify everything that we want to be about, from their effort to their unselfishness to their willingness to sacrifice to who they are as students to who they are as people," Groce said. "I'm going to miss coaching those guys. I told both of them it was a privilege to coaching them and we look forward to always being there for them."

Before leaving the locker room for the final time, Ekey let everybody know how much fun he had and what meant to play with each teammate. Bertrand did the same. It wasn't so much as a goodbye though. Former players are always around, the '89 Final Four team reunion, D.J. Richardson at home games, Jerry Hester on the radio call, Brandon Paul and Stephen Bardo at the Big Ten Tournament examples of that this season alone.

Bertrand knows that and experienced four classes of seniors go before him. He understands his new role as a former player.

"Every time they left they told the younger guys to keep working hard and they'll always be part of the program," Bertrand said. "They wanted to see everybody succeed and they wanted to see me succeed as well, so I just kind of passed that down to the younger guys. Illinois is still going to be there, we've got a lot of good guys coming through and I'll be there for them."

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