Kevin Berardini Enjoying Walkon Opportunity

Kevin Berardini (Holly Smith)

Each year, one or two walkons for the Fighting Illini basketball team attract interest from the Illini Nation. This year, redshirt freshman Kevin Berardini is a popular name among the Orange Krush, who yell for his appearance in blowout games. They might like him even more if they know something about him.

Kevin Berardini is an Illinois walkon from Lake Forest. He spent a year at Loyola Marymount before returning to his home state school.

"It's funny. I was originally set on going to prep school. But then we sent a couple tapes out to St. Mary's (College) and (Loyola) Marymount. Coach (Max) Good called us and said they didn't have a scholarship for us right away, but he liked what he saw and said he'd love to have me come out there and have an opportunity to play right away."

His time at Marymount didn't work out as he'd hoped. He never saw game action.

"I got pretty sick last fall and was in the hospital for a little bit. After that whole deal, I began realizing how far away from home I was. I decided I wanted to have my family see me play. I realized how important they were for me. That was one of the biggest aspects of me coming back."

Illinois coach Bruce Weber doesn't take many walkons. Berardini was fortunate an opening occurred when it did.

"We talked to Coach (Jay) Price mostly, in the spring. At first, they were a little hesitant because they had Jeff Jordan. I think when he decided to leave, that might have opened the door for me. They needed another point guard.

"Unfortunately, I wasn't able to be here over the summer, but they suggested I come down to visit and play with the guys a couple times. Things just evolved after that. We knew going in that I would be on the team. But it was good to come down a couple times over the summer to get acclimated with the guys."

He found Illini players willing to accept him on the team. He was comfortable from the start.

"Yeah, and I think that is a testament to how special a group of guys this is. They welcomed me in. It's tough a lot of times, especially when you're not here in the summer where guys develop bonds, they took me in right away and made me feel part of the team. I thought that was really cool."

Berardini has to pay his own way, but tuition is much cheaper in-state than at Loyola Marymount.

"My dad got a big raise when I decided to come back here."

Berardini's first opportunity to play on the Assembly Hall floor with his team included two free throw attempts. Unfortunately, he couldn't find the bottom of the net.

"After my redshirt year, this was the first action I'd gotten in a year and a half. So I was a little nervous on the court. I was more excited about taking a charge and getting a steal. I'll never forget standing at the free throw line. I didn't think I was that nervous, but on the first one I could feel a hitch."

That experience settled him down for his next chance at glory. He hit two buckets against Toledo.

"After I got those first game jitters out of the way, I was comfortable on the court again. The fans were great. They were real supportive. I appreciate that a lot."

Jean Selus joined Berardini as walkons after the season began. He doesn't mind sharing fan affections.

"Jean and I have a lot of fun with them. I'm excited for us to be out there and have a chance to show them when we get up big on teams."

Speaking during an Illini up-cycle, Berardini provided a solid scouting report on his team.

"I think we're really starting to come together. We're focused on paying attention to the little things, and it's showing how talented this group of guys is.

"As long as we can stay focused on things like ball handling and rebounding, I think those are the two biggest things. That's what can take a really good team, a top 15-20 team, to maybe a team that can make a run in the NCAA Tournament.

"What we're really trying to focus on is working together all the time, as we have a tendency to stand around a little bit. Part of that is we have so much talent, it's easy for guys to watch as guys take over. Making sure we're always moving on offense, guarding and rebounding, those are the biggest things that can help separate us from a lot of teams."

Sounds like a future coach. In the meantime, Berardini is enjoying his time in the spotlight.

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