Year one of John Groce’s tenure at Illinois saw a 23-win season and an appearance in the NCAA Tournament Round of 32. But that team was led by a couple of seniors with tremendous experience as Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson were natural leaders on the floor on the wing.
One of the biggest questions Groce — and the Illini — will face in year two is who they will turn to as the new leaders on the floor with Paul and Richardson moving on.
So far, it’s looking like two new candidates might have emerged according to a story from the News-Gazette’s Marcus Jackson.
Illinois assistant coach Jamall Walker works with the guards and says that Tracy Abrams is emerging as a leader.
“I have such a high-character group of guys,” Walker said to the News-Gazette. “I really have some good dudes. Tracy’s really trying to take charge as the leader of the program.”
While working with the wings, another Illinois assistant, Paris Parham, is raving about fifth-year senior Joe Bertrand — a guy recruited along with last year’s leaders Paul and Richardson in the class of 2009.
Now is it Bertrand’s turn to take charge? A passage in the story about his recovery from an injury to become a leader seems to make him a viable candidate as a team leader:
Another Illini who underwent offseason surgery is fifth-year senior Joseph Bertrand. The guard had surgery in early April to repair the labrum in his right shoulder and spent the summer rehabbing that injury. Parham, who works primarily with Bertrand and the other wing players, said Bertrand is back to full-go.“Joe can do everything now,” he said. “He surprised us in his workout the other day without doing any conditioning all summer. He’s been playing some pickup games. He’s a competitor. He’s been in every day getting up extra shots.”While he was sidelined this summer, Bertrand watched his teammates and helped acclimate the nine newcomers with the system and emerged as a leader. That’s something that has translated to the court since his return.“He’s getting better and more vocal,” Parham said. “He’s realizing this is his last year. When you become a senior, you kind of step out of your body a little bit and do some different things.”
Abrams will return as an experienced junior point guard after starting 32 of 36 games as a sophomore last year. He averaged 10.6 points per game but he’ll need to improve his sub-40% field goal percentage (39.4%) and perimeter shot (27% three-point percentage) in order to be a more balanced scorer and weapon.
Bertrand was the team’s sixth man last season — fourth in scoring (7.3 points) and third in rebounds (4.1 rebounds) — and will be relied on to help carry more of the scoring burden.
Some other great parts in the story include the recruiting of Illinois assistant coaches Walker, Parham and Dustin Ford including a phenomenal phone passage from Parham.
“You can’t put the phone down, you just can’t,” Parham said in the story. “My wife (Keisha) understands that; there’s always a third party in the bedroom — the phone. Sometimes I fall asleep with it in the bed. The other day it was under my pillow when I woke up. She’s all right with it; she really understands it all.”