Bertrand, Egwu, Abrams welcome nine new Illini

Joseph Bertrand has stories to tell, and John Groce is trying to get him to tell them.

Bertrand has seen it all — wins and losses, injuries and rehab, stormed courts and letdowns. He’s seen his team lose 12 of 14 games to end a season, and he’s come seconds from the Sweet 16.

Groce only expects him to share his experiences. 

Well, in addition to the many other expectations Groce has for him.

The weight of Illini nation is on Bertrand’s shoulders. And Nnanna Egwu’s. And Tracy Abrams’.

They are all that is left. Those three and sophomore walk-on Mike LaTulip are the only Illini who played in a game last year. Everyone else is new to the Illinois experience.

The upperclassmen have stories to tell, especially Bertrand, and their head coach knows it.

“I said to him the other day, ‘You’re older than me,’” Groce said of Bertrand. “‘You’ve been here five years. You’ve been through ups, you’ve been through downs; you’ve been through injuries, you’ve been through celebrations. You’ve bounced back from adversity.’

“What a shame if our older guys don’t share those experiences with the younger guys.”

For nine faces, especially the five freshmen, this experience is completely brand new.

Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson accounted for 16.6 and 12.3 points per game respectively last season. The only other double-figure scorer was point guard Abrams.

Those are big shoes to fill. But Egwu doesn’t look at it like that.

“I don’t think anyone’s worried about filling their shoes,” Egwu said. “No one’s going out there and saying, ‘I want to be like D.J. Richardson, I want to be like Brandon Paul.’ People are like: ‘I want to be me. I want to go out there and do what I know. I want to be that guy that other’s say, can I fill his shoes?’”

Bertrand remembers being a freshman — a season he ultimately redshirted — living in the dorms with Richardson, Paul and Tyler Griffey. That’s when he got close with his teammates.

And that’s what he sees from this year’s freshmen: Jaylon Tate, Malcolm Hill, Maverick Morgan, Kendrick Nunn and Austin Colbert.

“I think their closeness has rubbed off on everyone else,” the junior center, Egwu, said. “With nine new guys total, it’d be hard for you to tell me that we’d be this close as a team.”

Groce would agree that the freshmen are close. But being close off the court is different from being close on it. And no one can teach the freshmen like Bertrand, Egwu and Abrams.

“We need more of our veterans to be outspoken,” Groce said. “I keep using the phrase: We need them to have meaningful communication with the nine new faces. You take a guys like Joe, I’m on Joe — and he’ll be the first to tell you — to talk more.”

Bertrand said being more outspoken is not an adjustment for him. Groce might disagree, but Bertrand says it’s not a problem.

Abrams will admit that it’s weird being one of the older guys on the team. But he knows there are more expectations on him. He’s ready for them.

“I’ve just got to embrace that role,” Abrams said. “I’m an older guy, I’ve just got to do what I can do to help the younger guys.”

For Bertrand, it’s about teaching the younger guys what it means to put on the orange and blue uniform.

“It’s playing hard all the time and showing them what it means to play at Illinois,” Bertrand said. “How much responsibility that is. They’re really catching on to that. It’s really showing from the progress they’ve made.”

Egwu likes how coachable the young freshman unit is. 

The group learned quickly and extra practice time this year has given them more chances to grow accustomed to the college game.

And if anything, Richardson and Paul prepared these guys for this.

“They’re great players who could score and did a lot of good things,” Egwu said. “I think they prepared us to take on the role. I think we’re ready to step up.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @sean_hammond.