CHAMPAIGN — Throughout the course of his career, Illinois fans have seen Joseph Bertrand do superhuman things on the court.
There was the breakout performance against Missouri in the annual Braggin’ Rights game during his sophomore year when he scored 19 against the Tigers in St. Louis, making all nine shots he attempted.
Later that season he exploded for 25 against Nebraska. He put on a show last year against Georgia Tech in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, going on a personal 10-0 run, and he went for 17 later in the season against Wisconsin.
He’s capable of doing some spectacular things. The problem is those types of performances have been few and far between.
It’s only been two games this season, but Bertrand looks like a player primed to make those types of performances a regular occurrence during his final go-around in college.
In Sunday’s 86-62 win against Jacksonville State at the State Farm Center, the fifth-year senior scored a game-high 20 points to go along with 10 rebounds, earning plenty of style points en route to recording his first career double-double.
“I thought Bertrand was terrific. He was ready all day, shootaround he was ready,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “Thank God he played. His energy level was off the charts.”
Above-the-rim rebounds, high-flying putbacks, crossovers and step-back jumpers. You name it, Bertrand did it against the Gamecocks (0-2) in front of 13,506.
A fan in the front row of A Section behind the Illinois bench yelled to Bertrand: “Let the beast out, Joe. Let the beast out, baby!”
The beast was out in Friday’s season opener against Alabama State in which Bertrand scored 14 points and grabbed eight rebounds.
It was out again Sunday, and the hope inside the locker room and in the fandom is it remains on full display through March.
“He’s practiced that way, he’s been very consistent. I’m pleased with how hard he played, how competitive and tough he was, how physical he was,” Groce said. “He just wants to win. He competed his tail off.”
To outsiders, it might look as though the 6-foot-6 wing player is filling a different role than he has in the past while playing alongside his good friends Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson. Groce said Bertrand is doing the same things he has always done, he’s just doing them better so far this season.
“I don’t think there’s been too much of a difference,” Bertrand said. “We’ve got some new guys who can score as well. It’s a whole new team, and I think we’re gelling together pretty good so far. It’s the same system; we’re doing the same things.”
Bertrand had plenty of help from his teammates on Sunday. Backcourt mates Rayvonte Rice and Tracy Abrams battled foul trouble to score 13 points apiece, and Nnanna Egwu added 10 points, seven rebounds and a career-high five blocks.
Freshman point guard Jaylon Tate came off the bench to pour in 10 points and dish out eight assists, and Jon Ekey added seven points for the Illini (2-0).
For the second straight game, all 11 eligible players had checked into the game in the first 10 minutes and reached the scoring column.
“We’re going to do this thing by committee. Hopefully now you’re starting to see it,” Groce said. “I’m not just saying it; we’re doing it. Night in and night out, all 11 guys that are eligible to get in the game have to be ready to go, and they have to be an NBA all-star in their role. As soon as one of them is not, with this team, it’s not good enough. We’ve got to have everybody ready to go.”
Fifth-year senior Joseph Bertrand recorded his first double-double (20 points, 10 rebounds) and Nnanna Egwu blocked a career-high five shots as the Illini moved to 2-0 for the 15th straight year.
What it means
Illinois does well at home against nonconference opponents. With Sunday’s win against the Gamecocks, the Illini have now won 24 straight at the State Farm Center against non-league foes.
Valparaiso, which scored 113 points in a win Sunday against North Park, comes to the State Farm Center on Wednesday along with Illini great Roger Powell, an assistant coach on the Crusaders’ staff.