Bertrand shines as Illini basketball opens season

The star of this year’s Illini Madness may have been on the roster at the same event a year ago, but he was barely on the radar for most Illinois basketball fans.

This time last year, guard Joseph Bertrand was just over a month removed from mid-September knee surgery.

In January, a torn calf muscle sealed the Sterling, Ill., native’s fate, as Bertrand sat out the season as a redshirt.

But the redshirt freshman was back on the court, and stealing the show, at Illini Madness on Friday.

“I had so much fun. The players were great, the fans came out and supported us, so it made it even better,” Bertrand said.

“I just love being out here, playing basketball, being with the team,” said Bertrand.

Bertrand took the crown in the team dance-off, outlasted senior forward Bill Cole in the finals of knockout, then defeated freshman center Meyers Leonard in the dunk contest.

“It’s just something I really think about in my head, just thinking about what I’m going to do,” Bertrand said of his dunks.

“But I didn’t really practice any of those,” he added.

The final round of the dunk contest came down to Leonard and Bertrand.

Leonard re-enacted the dunk that garnered him YouTube fame by jumping over redshirt freshman Kevin Berardini.

But Bertrand took the title by stealing a page out of Leonard’s playbook, jumping over sophomore guard D.J. Richardson, who donned a Halloween mask for the dunk.

“Really it was supposed to be for me, but I didn’t make it to the finals. So I just said, ‘Joe, you need to do this. I want you to win,’” Richardson said.

“We just made it up at the end. So I was just like, ‘Hey, I’m going to put the mask on. You jump over me. Show Meyers, show everybody that you can jump over a higher person than Meyers (can).”

Leonard wasn’t too upset about Richardson’s surprise, though.

“D.J. had a mask, so it was a little more creative,” Leonard said.

“But Joe’s a great dunker, you can’t take that away from him. I thought I was going to win, but he got me,” Leonard added.

“I got a couple of nice dunks,” Leonard added. “I’m just going to keep doing my thing.”

But the dunk contest wasn’t the only attraction of the night.

Around 3,000 Illini fans at Huff Hall saw a preview of the 2010-11 Fighting Illini, as the team took the court for a 12-minute, running clock scrimmage.

“Next scrimmage is going to be a lot more serious,” Bertrand said.

“Guys are going to be getting after it in practice every day, so it’s going to be real competitive,” he added.

For point guard Demetri McCamey, playing his senior Illini Madness at Huff Hall made the annual event even better.

“I think we should have had it here every year,” McCamey said.

He explained, “It’s for the students. And next Sunday for the Orange and Blue is more for everybody, so I think (having it at Huff) gives students a chance to come in and support and don’t have to spend any money as well.”

And the senior, who said he barely remembers his own freshman year, had some advice for this year’s freshmen class before Friday’s festivities.

“I told them to enjoy it,” McCamey said. “It’s just going to be crazy. It’s hard to explain, I can’t put it in a couple of words. So I just told them to go out and have fun.”

Now that Illini Madness is in the past and the Illini can officially practice, McCamey is even more excited to get the season underway.

“Preseason is over, so it’s just not running for no reason,” McCamey said. “And it’s just fun, the fact that it’s here, the season’s here. You can’t ask for anything better.”