The Illini have plenty of upside, but you know the saying about potential. It just means you haven't done it yet. The Illini lost four senior starters from last season, forged ahead with a recruiting class that provided hope but showed plenty of growing pains in the season's first two months.

The grumbling boiled up last weekend in Chicago, when Illinois lost by double digits to UNLV.


A roster loaded with freshmen and starters taking on much bigger roles, No. 25 Illinois had plenty of work to regain confidence in a fan base growing impatient. Maybe the 78-74 loss to No. 9 Missouri did more than any victory this season.


"If they didn't enjoy that game, then heck with them,'' said Illini coach Bruce Weber.


The Illini have plenty of upside, but you know the saying about potential. It just means you haven't done it yet. The Illini lost four senior starters from last season, forged ahead with a recruiting class that provided hope but showed plenty of growing pains in the season's first two months.


With a 17-3 run midway through the second half that gave the Illini a one-point lead against the Tigers, Illinois teased with a game everyone hoped to see.


Illinois (11-2) hosts Minnesota (12-1) in the Big Ten Conference opener on Tuesday (6:30 p.m., BTN).


"I'm proud, but the big thing is how much improvement we keep making,'' Weber said. "We have to practice better if we're going to compete in the Big Ten, which is very, very tough this year.''


Redshirt sophomore guard Joe Bertrand knows a little bit about trying to rebuild some trust.


In the previous six games, Bertrand saw his minutes dwindle. He scored two points and lost six turnovers in the span, and Bertrand logged 13 minutes combined in games against UNLV Saturday and Cornell Monday.


Bertrand has more athleticism than basketball skill, and he searched for a niche. Thrown into a workout with the freshmen before practice Monday, Bertrand was the best player on the court and regained his spot as first sub off the bench.


"To Joe's credit, he really stepped up,'' Weber said.


He scored a career-high 19 points against Missouri while making all of his nine shots. Bertrand had never scored more than 11 in a game, but he suddenly had the confidence to attack Missouri by driving to the basket.


"He said to be aggressive,'' Bertrand said. "He had a pick-and-roll for me. He told me to keep going to the basket and be aggressive, get in the lane and keep hitting the little jump shots. He told me to do what I can do.''


Bertrand scored nine points in the run that gave the Illini a 62-61 lead with 7 minutes left.


"It's really a confidence builder to get out there and play good like that,'' said Bertrand, who entered the game with a 3.2-point average. "I had a couple tough games, had some turnovers. Coach lost confidence in me. I'm trying to build that back up and get out there.''


With Bertrand's speed and bounce, the Illini can play small ball, like Missouri, so Bertrand is a valuable piece the Illini need.


"We need everybody,'' he said.


Two starters posted double-doubles: Guard Brandon Paul had 19 points and 10 rebounds but lost six turnovers while center Meyers Leonard had 14 points and 13 rebounds.


"We made some progress, but we still have a long way to go,'' Weber said. "The key is keep making progress, learning how hard you have to play.''


NOTES: The Illini take Friday and Saturday off before returning to campus on Christmas ... Minnesota defeated North Dakota State 63-59 Thursday.


John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie.