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College basketball: Bertrand's move to bench hasn't helped

Bench cooling Bertrand

A glance at Illinois’ statistic sheet would reveal an efficient and productive player in senior Joseph Bertrand.

He leads the team among players who record significant minutes with 48.5 percent shooting, which is something for a team that has shot a league-worst 37.4 percent in Big Ten play.

But in the three games since Bertrand moved to the role as a first-off-the-bench player from a 23-game starter this season, he appears as if he’s actually moved further from the bench.

In games at Penn State, at Nebraska and against Ohio State, he has shot a combined 3-for-15 and scored just seven points, averaging 14.7 minutes per game.

Bertrand was responsible for four turnovers in Saturday’s 48-39 loss to Ohio State, the Illini’s 10th defeat in 11 games.  In that loss, a fifth-straight at State Farm Center, he scored only two points on 1-for-7 shooting.

“He needs to play better,” Groce said afterward. “He didn’t play real well. Joe knows that. He can play better. He has played better. He needs to take care of the ball better. That [small] margin for error, we need everybody. He wasn’t the only one, but I think he’d be the first to tell you he didn’t pay quite as well as he’s capable.”

Groce is right. Bertrand isn’t the only one.

In an effort to reward improvement of freshmen and inject life into an otherwise limp lineup, Groce moved Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn into starting roles as Bertrand and fellow senior Jon Ekey  came off the bench.

Ekey, averaging 7.4 points a game, is 3 of 15 shooting in the last three games, including a 0-for-5 shooting effort against Ohio State. He’s 0-for-6 on 3-pointers in the last two games.

Oddly, Ekey’s struggles have been highlighted by a multitude of missed tipped dunks this season.

“Tipped dunks, a couple threes,” Groce said. “I’m more interested in the quality of the possessions because that’s what you can control. You try to do the best job to put him in position. We’ll take a look at it and see if there’s ways we can help.”

The Illini (14-12, 3-10) play at Minnesota on Wednesday, The Illini could use a breakout game from either to help Illinois finish the season on a strong note.

Groce conceded the losses haven’t been easy to deal with, but he’s still working to find answers.

“It can be frustrating,” he said. “But that doesn’t do us any good.”

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