Bertrand part of foundation for future
Around this time last year, Illinois fans were groaning about missing out on who they initially considered the right man for the job.
Athletic director Mike Thomas swung and missed on young Final Four coaches Shaka Smart from VCU and Brad Stevens from Butler.
The hiring of a relative unknown in John Groce from mid-major Ohio University was greeted with skepticism despite his recent trip to the Sweet 16.
Now it's hard to find an Illini supporter who doesn't back the hiring of Groce.
"This is a new beginning for us and our program," sophomore point guard Tracy Abrams said. "This is coach's first year and that was the foundation here for us."
As a No. 7 seed, nearly knocking off second-seeded Miami in Austin, Texas, before falling 63-59 Sunday night in the third round of the NCAA tournament solidified confidence in Illinois' future.
Groce inherited a team that fizzled by losing 12 of its final 14 games, leading to the firing of Bruce Weber. Some labeled the players as soft and apt to quit.
The Illini had missed three of the last five NCAA tournaments all together. Just earning a bid was a step in the right direction.
The Illini lose guards Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson and forwards Sam McLaurin and Tyler Griffey.
But things are looking up thanks to a stellar recruiting class.
Groce targeted Chicago and landed two stars from Simeon, signing 4-star shooting guard Kendrick Nunn and three-star point guard Jaylon Tate.
Shooting guard Malcolm Hill, a four-star recruit from Belleville, 6-foot-9 forward Austin Colbert, a four-star from New Jersey, and 6-10 center Maverick Morgan, a three-star from Ohio, round out the talented class.
The Illini also will have shooting guard Rayvonte Rice at their service after he sat out this season following his transfer from Drake.
Abrams and sophomore center Nnanna Egwu will be among the key returnees. Both showed improvement throughout the season as they grasped Groce's system.
Abrams averaged 10.7 points and 3.4 assists per game. Egwu scored 12 points with 12 rebounds against Miami as the Illini outrebounded an imposing Hurricanes front line 38-35.
"At about the middle of the season, [Egwu] became the captain of the team," Richardson said. "Next year he's going to have a bigger role for the team."
Junior Joseph Bertrand, who averaged 7.3 points per game on 53 percent shooting, will be an option to take over Paul's scoring role.
Illinois players seemed satisfied with a successful season. But Abrams said he wants more.
"Next year, I don't want to feel this," he said. "[I want] to just remember this situation, just to go out like that, and remember this feeling for the future of our team. We have a lot of guys coming back. We just have to grow from it."
Groce acknowledged there is more building to be done. But he mostly wanted to reflect on what the first season brought.
"We're in Year One," he said. "We're trying to build a legacy. [The seniors have] given us some momentum. There's no possible way I can repay them."