CHAMPAIGN — So much of the talk leading up to the start of the Illinois basketball season centered around the nine newcomers. Makes sense with an inordinate amount of new faces. But the old guys still have it, too.
Take Joseph Bertrand, for example. He’s still around, and the fifth-year senior made sure folks knew it during Friday’s 80-63 win against Alabama State in the season opener for both teams at State Farm Center.
Bertrand, who missed most of summer workouts while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, scored 14 points and grabbed eight rebounds against the Hornets in his final collegiate season opener.
“Opening night’s a special night. You don’t get too many opening nights in your career. We want to make the most of it. I thought Joe took that to heart,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “Joe played (Friday) like he’s practiced. He’s been consistent with his production, and (Friday night) was a by-product of his effort.”
Bertrand’s veteran friends got in on the act, too. Junior Nnanna Egwu, who had a double-double in the NCAA tournament loss to Miami in March, registered another one with 10 points and 10 rebounds Friday, and classmate Tracy Abrams (nine points, five rebounds, three assists) helped carry the load, too.
“I think for us to play consistently, especially here early, especially as we’ve got some guys figuring it out — and they’ll figure it out — our veterans have to be consistent,” Groce said. “I thought they practiced that way the last two days, and then they played that way (Friday night).”
Though he was making his Illinois debut Friday, Champaign native Rayvonte Rice is considered a veteran with this team, too, after sitting out last season following his transfer from Drake. The fourth-year junior, who entered the game needing 17 points to reach 1,000 for his career, led the Illini with 22 points and pulled down nine rebounds.
“He’s aggressive. He goes to the basket; he attacks the rim,” Egwu said of Rice. “He helps all of us because once he attacks the basket, people have to come in and collapse in the paint and he can dish it down to open three-point shooters or dump it down to me.”
The new guys showed some flashes, too. Freshman Malcolm Hill scored seven points and grabbed six rebounds. They played like rookies, though, allowing a 28-point lead with five minutes to go whittle down to the final 17-point margin.
“It’s going to take all 11 of us; I’ve been saying that for a long time now,” Groce said. “(Friday night) we played all 11 guys. We played them all in the first half, and those guys made contributions (Friday night). I thought everybody made at least a play or two or more to help us win, and it’s going to take that mind-set of by committee for this team to ultimately reach its potential this year.”