Illini commits dazzle at Assembly Hall

Joseph Bertrand (left) of Sterling High School jumps; turns and tosses the basketball back into play while Brandon Paul (front right) of Warrent Township High School watches during a summer basketball tournament at Assembly Hall on Sunday. Wes Anderson

Joseph Bertrand (left) of Sterling High School jumps; turns and tosses the basketball back into play while Brandon Paul (front right) of Warrent Township High School watches during a summer basketball tournament at Assembly Hall on Sunday. Wes Anderson

By Jeremy Werner

Joseph Bertrand stared his defender down as if to say, “Try and stop this.” The lanky 6-foot-4 guard moved like a gazelle, pouncing past defenders as he sliced through the lane for an athletic finger roll.

On the next possession, Brandon Paul took a quick crossover dribble before elevating for a three-point attempt that touched nothing but the back of the net.

No, this wasn’t a Bruce Weber dream. The Illinois coach could do nothing but grin and possibly pinch himself as he watched Sterling High School’s Bertrand and Warren Township High School’s Paul dazzle the small crowd gathered at the Assembly Hall for the University of Illinois Team Shootout on Sunday.

Bertrand and Paul were two of the many Illinois recruits and verbal commits showcased in the 12-team tournament hosted at the Ubben Basketball Complex and Assembly Hall.

The event was a day of celebration for Weber, a day to put aside any lingering disappointment about losing out on the state’s best talents, such as Julian Wright, Jon Scheyer, Sherron Collins and Derrick Rose.

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    After years of failing to bring in the top talent the state of Illinois has to offer, Weber seems to have conquered his recruiting demons – at least for the next three years.

    In addition to Bertrand and Paul, Peoria guard D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey, a 6-foot-8 forward from Ballwin, Mo., gave verbal commitments to Weber this past winter, completing his most celebrated recruiting class. ESPN.com rates Illinois’ 2009 class as the second best in the nation, behind North Carolina.

    Weber has also received verbal commits from two of the top recruits in the nation from the Class of 2010: Waukegan’s 6-foot-6 Jereme Richmond and Crandall Head, younger brother of former Illini and Houston Rockets guard Luther Head.

    “I’m real excited because they’re great players,” Paul said of Richmond and Head. “After a year, they step in and we get to show them what to do and play hard.”

    Securing Richmond as a freshman in November 2006 gave Weber a player to build and recruit around. Paul, Bertrand and Richardson committed within two days of each other last October. With Griffey and Head committing just months later and the addition of 27-year-old assistant coach and former Illinois player Jerrance Howard, Weber gained the steam to go full-speed ahead in recruiting.

    Even with most of Illinois’ scholarships spoken for, Weber and the Illinois coaching staff have stayed on the recruiting trail, a survival technique learned from the Eric Gordon decommitment fiasco.

    Weber has given scholarship offers to Zion-Benton junior Lenzelle Smith, Whitney Young junior Anthony Johnson, De LaSalle sophomore Mike Shaw and Donivine Stewart, a sophomore point guard from Limestone.

    Guards seem to be at the top of Weber’s prospect list. It is his strength with three former guards wearing NBA jerseys after spending their college careers in Weber’s motion offense.

    “They make good players,” Bertrand said of Illinois. “Dee Brown, Deron (Williams), Luther (Head), they’re all NBA players. Hopefully, we can come down to Illinois and make some noise just like they did.”

    Stewart, who has only received an offer from Illinois, said the Illini’s recent disappointments on the court and Weber’s past struggles in recruiting have not had an effect on whether he chooses to play in Champaign.

    “It happens to every college, you get a little drought,” Stewart said. “It really wouldn’t matter if they had the season they had or they had a better season. I mean I like Illinois, period.”

    After Joseph Bertrand lit up the scoreboard for the second time at Assembly Hall – the Sterling guard scored 28 points at the Shootout at the Hall in December – all Bruce Weber could do was smile.

    As Bertrand walked off the Assembly Hall floor, Weber told the senior: “Joseph, you’re going to like this as your home court.”