Matt Ross clearly remembers the first time he played against Joseph Bertrand in a varsity basketball game. It was November 2007, and Dixon's then-sophomore was facing rival Sterling for the first time.
Bertrand was a junior in his third year as a varsity starter for the Golden Warriors, and he led them to a Sauk Valley Shootout win over Ross and the Dukes. In fact, in the six games over two seasons between Bertrand's Warriors and Ross' Dukes, Sterling won every one of them.
But that doesn't scar the memories Ross has of the battles with the Warriors, and a fellow standout he never imagined he'd see again on the same court.
"Honestly, after high school, I never pictured us playing again," said Ross, now a senior at Chicago State. "To me, those Dixon-Sterling games were the best, and everybody came out to watch. It was mostly on Joe's side, with all the hype he had, but it was fun to be in that atmosphere."
Tonight, the two Sauk Valley Division-I products will renew their rivalry, albeit in a very different environment, when Ross and his Cougars visit Bertrand and the Illinois Fighting Illini at the State Farm Center in Champaign. The game will be televised on Big Ten Network at 8 p.m.
Bertrand, a fifth-year senior for the Illini, was just as surprised as Ross when he saw the two teams set to clash in an early season contest. He, too, remembers those Dixon games, from the perspective of an older, more experienced player watching a younger Ross coming into his own.
"I never really thought much about playing him again," Bertrand said. "I think it's a good thing for our area, which doesn't get a lot of D-I basketball attention, to have two guys who people from Dixon and Sterling will recognize and be able to watch on TV and support us."
Joseph Bertrand has been waiting for this chance his entire life. A piece of a highly touted recruiting class for former Illinois coach Bruce Weber, the SVM player of the year in 2008 and '09 redshirted as a freshman and is now the lone remaining ranger from a group that included Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey.
Last season, Bertrand watched as his close friends went through the emotional ups and downs of their final collegiate season. This year, he's the one experiencing it firsthand, and he learned a lot from watching his buddies go through it.
"I'm taking time each day to try and enjoy every part of this," Bertrand said, "and that's something the guys last year helped me realize. I love being around my teammates and the coaching staff, and I want to make sure I do everything big this year and help change the program the way those guys did … and leave with a bang."
Now in the second season of the John Groce era, Bertrand says he and his teammates have adapted well and are now comfortable with the new system and style of play. He likes the strides this group has taken in the first few weeks of the season, and feels they're getting where they need to be as the Big Ten schedule approaches.
He's also loving his role as the veteran leader. He has already graduated with a degree in recreation sports, and is taking graduate courses in order to use his last season of eligibility.
"It's good for me, and I think it's good for the team," Bertrand said. "I like being the older guy who helps everybody out, the young guys and the transfers, and gets everybody on the same page."
Through four games, Bertrand leads the unbeaten Illini in minutes played (117), and is second on the team in points (53), rebounds (29) and steals (2). His seven assists is fourth on the squad, and his double-double of 20 points and 10 rebounds led Illinois in an 86-62 win over Jacksonville State on Nov. 10.
Bertrand said he and his teammates are ignoring any noise coming from outside the program, whether it be predictions of how the Illini will finish this season or any talk of a rebuilding year. Their focus right now is getting better every day and meshing as a team; the long-term goals will take care of themselves.
He's also not worried about what the future holds further down the trail.
"One of my goals is to play professionally, but that stuff will take care of itself," Bertrand said. "Right now, I'm doing whatever I can do to help my team and have a great senior season. That's really what I'm playing for."
Matt Ross has developed his game quite a bit since his Dixon days, and he received some top-shelf help this offseason to take the next step.
None other than Scottie Pippen has given Ross and his teammates pointers, and Ross has enjoyed his time spent at the former Bulls great's Chicagoland mansion – and its indoor basketball court. Pippen is the uncle and legal guardian of Ross' teammate and fellow juco transfer Quinton Pippen.
"It's been a great experience, just asking him questions about how he approached games and opponents," Ross said. "He's definitely given me a different mentality, trying to take the ball to the basket early in games and then build from the inside out as the game goes on. He's helped me focus more on my footwork, too, and teaches us moves to break our defenders down and keep them off-balance."
Throughout the last 4 years with the Sauk Valley Skyhawks and the Cougars, Ross has expanded his game from the post player he was at Dixon to an all-around guy who likes to work inside and outside.
He's also back in a familiar role as a floor leader, helping Chicago State build a program and make the transition to the Western Athletic Conference from the Great West.
"Coming here, I knew I was an undersized post at this level, and I knew I couldn't be one-dimensional," Ross said. "Having an outside game gives me more of an advantage out there, and I'm trying to get back to where I was last year in knocking down 3s consistently.
"And I love being a leader for my team, keeping everybody motivated and involved. It's been my role my entire basketball career, and with me and Pippen and [Jamere] Dismukes out there on the floor together again this year, we have a great chemistry and a much stronger bond."
Ross leads the Cougars in minutes (166), rebounds (36) and blocked shots (9), and his 68 points are second on the team behind Pippen. He's led Chicago State in rebounds in four of its five games, and been the leading scorer in two of the last three.
And while the 2010 SVM player of the year has aspirations of playing professional basketball, like Bertrand, he's focused on a strong senior season and some success in a new conference with the Cougars.
"We know a lot of our big games this year are on the road, so we're calling ourselves the Road Warriors," Ross said. "One of our big goals is to beat New Mexico State in our first conference home game, because they won the WAC and got the NCAA bid last year. Beating them would set a good bar for us, and show everybody we can compete with the guys in this league."
Going at it again
• Former SVM players of the year Joseph Bertrand of Sterling and Matt Ross of Dixon will meet tonight when Bertrand's Illinois Fighting Illini (4-0) host Ross' Chicago State Cougars (2-3) at 8 p.m. in Champaign. Here's how the two Sauk Valley natives have fared so far this season:
Bertrand: 13.3 points, 7.3 rebounds per game through 4 games. … Leads team in minutes (117), and is second in points (53), rebounds (29) and steals (2). … Also has 7 assists and 10 turnovers. … Shooting 53 percent (16-for-30) 2-point FGs, 75 percent (3-for-4) 3s & 71 percent (12-for-17) FTs.
Ross: 13.6 points, 7.2 rebounds per game through 5 games. … Leads team in minutes (166), rebounds (36) and blocked shots (9), and is second in points (68). … Also has 6 steals, 5 turnovers & 4 assists. … Shooting 46 percent (18-for-39) 2-point FGs, 27 percent (7-for-26) 3s & 85 percent (11-for-13) FTs.