CHAMPAIGN – Illinois men’s basketball coach John Groce had no intentions of taking senior Joseph Bertrand out of the game during Sunday’s contest against Jacksonville State.
The 6-foot-6 guard from Sterling did a little bit of everything for the Fighting Illini from scoring to rebounding to play defense.
Bertrand had a game-high 20 points to go along with 10 rebounds as Illinois improved to 2-0 on the season with an 86-62 victory over the Gamecocks of Jacksonville State before 13,506 at the State Farm Center.
“I thought that Joe was really locked in the whole game,’’ Groce said. “Obviously, he had a great performance.
“I basically told him that I was not taking him out until you tell me you’re tired. He was the one guy that was really locked in. I thought you could tell he was really dialed in the whole time. He was really competitive on the glass, competitive defense. I thought he made a lot of plays for us.’’
Bertrand made his first six shots from the field and the double-double was the first of his career, but he doesn’t see anything different this season.
“It’s the same system and we are doing the same things,’’ said Bertrand, who was part of a recruiting class that included former Illini standouts Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey. “I don’t think that it’s been too different. We have some new guys that can score as well.
“Yeah it’s a whole new team, but I think we’re gelling together pretty good so far.’’
Groce echoed Bertrand’s comments, saying that the coaching staff is asking the senior to do the same things he did a year ago.
“He is just doing them better,’’ Groce said. “He understands our defense better. But for us, I thought he was really good last year. I think he has gotten better, and he is stronger.’’
But according to Groce, that can be attributed to Bertrand being a fifth-year senior.
“I always say that freshman want to play, sophomores want to start, junior want to score and seniors want to win,’’ Groce said. “We talk about it all of the time and every day, he realizes that he can’t get that day back.
“There are just so many days left that he has in that Illini jersey and it means something to him.’’
Bertrand, who led the Illinois in field goal percentage last year, has made 13-of-18 shots (72.2 percent) in the first two games this season. But a big reason for his success has been his ability to get the majority of shots at close range.
“The coaches have really pushed me to get into the lane, that is one of the things that I do the best,’’ Bertrand said. “The other thing that they have stressed to me is rebounding.’’
Bertrand was one of the few bright spots on the glass for Illinois during Sunday’s game. Jacksonville State (0-2) won the battle of the boards 44-37 and the Gamecocks had 25 offensive rebounds leading to 22 second-chance points.
“I thought that was unacceptable,’’ Groce said. “I don’t like giving up that many offensive rebounds. That is something we are going to look at on the film.’’
Illinois junior center Nnanna Egwu, who had seven rebounds on Sunday after pulling down 10 in the season opener, admitted the Fighting Illini needed to make some rebounding improvements.
“We just have to do a better job of hitting them and getting them away from the paint,’’ said Egwu, who tied a career-high with five blocked shots and he also contributed 10 points.
The Illini wound up with five players scoring in double figures. Bertrand had a game-high 20, followed by Tracy Abrams and Rayvonte Rice with 13 each, while Egwu and freshman Jaylon Tate finished with 10.
In addition to his career-high scoring performance, Tate also had eight assists and just one turnover in 25 minutes for the Illini.
“I knew when I first saw him during the summer, I knew how smart he was, his IQ is really high and the way he shares the ball,’’ said Egwu about Tate. “He has a great attitude. He always wants to learn, he wants to get better and he always wants to help everyone get better.’’
And Tate’s play was part of the reason that Illinois cut their turnovers down from 15 in the opener to just five on Sunday.
“I love the fact that we only had five turnovers,’’ Groce said. “But, we have another opportunity to get better on Wednesday.’’
Up next for the Fighting Illini is their third straight home game to start the season on Wednesday when Illinois will play Valparaiso in a 6:30 p.m. game at the State Farm Center.