Mike Davis has had a good career at Illinois. The double-double machine has averaged over 10 points a game and nearly that many boards a game each of the last two seasons. His rebounding totals are down this year, but he's doing more things to help the team. A decision to be evaluated by pro teams last spring helped him understand what he needed to do to improve.
"It was mostly reinforcement. They said I should be a defensive stopper, work on quickness and lateral movement. I know what to do to be successful and a great basketball player."
Illini coach Bruce Weber had shared the same thoughts previously, but Davis benefitted from a new voice in his ear.
"Hearing from NBA guys, it's totally different from hearing from Coach. 'If you want to be here, you'd better do this.' Immaturity is one thing I've got to get over to grow."
The evaluation was music to Weber's ears, especially the importance of defense.
"I think he's more focused on it. It means something. One of the things that happened from last spring with the NBA, they said if you ever want to play here, you've got to be a defensive threat. It was great for me because it gave me a motivational tool. I've challenged him, 'You've got to show you can guard these people, whether it's (John) Henson, (Elias) Harris or someone else.'"
The power forward is noticeably more assertive defensively and can sometimes defend the post.
"Coach preaches defense first," Davis reminds. "That's what Illinois is pretty much about. You have to play defense to stay on the floor. I want to help my team win. Everybody has been dedicated to defense. They've been doing it in practice and the games."
Davis learned other things as well according to Weber.
"The other thing he's doing, we've talked about getting one run-out a game and one put-back a game. He had two put-backs against Gonzaga, and he had a run-out. Some other times, he's really run hard, which causes the defense to get back on him and then somebody else gets the baskets.
"I don't think people always appreciate that. Mike is sprinting, runs by three people, and then they've got to go sink to him. Boom, D.J. (Richardson) is wide open or somebody else is wide open because of it.
"He isn't perfect, but when he does fail or struggle, it doesn't take him a game or a week to get out of it. (The other day) he missed a layup. Boom, I sat him down. 'You're fine, you don't have to raise your hands up to the sky to ask for help. Just take care of yourself, go back in there and play well.' And he did that."
Davis appreciates Weber's kind words.
"Coming from him, it's a compliment to me. It's a good thing, I want to keep it up. Instead of talking back, putting my head down, making faces, pouting, I haven't been doing that. I want to win man, it's all about winning.
With more maturity came more responsibility to take care of himself and prepare properly for his final college season.
"I've worked hard in the weight room the last 3-4 years, but I hadn't gotten much stronger," Davis remembers. "But this summer something clicked. Me and (Mike) Tisdale went to the weight room two times a day this summer. I've gotten stronger, and it shows."
Does the extra weight and strength help?
"Definitely. I'm not shying away from contact like I usually do. I'm getting to the free throw line. I'm making my little jump shots easier, I'm posting up stronger and not getting pushed around. All this work paid off. It's made me more aggressive."
The Virginia native feels good enough about his body he no longer wears a t-shirt under his jersey. He may not have guns for arms, but there is definite muscle definition. However, he says his biggest improvement came with his lower body.
"My sprint times this year are 6-7 seconds faster than they were last year. So I'm stronger and quicker."
Illinois is not known as a good screening team despite using a motion offense that requires it. Davis is working to remedy that.
"Yeah, screening is a big part of the motion offense, getting those guys open. Plus, I know if I screen, I'll get open. If I screen and get open shots, or I screen to get someone else an open shot, it's a win-win situation."
Davis hasn't transformed into an entirely different player, just a more refined, more disciplined player with excellent shooting touch, outstanding leaping ability and potential for further improvement down the road. He has transformed his personal goals however.
"I want to be aggressive. I want to score, keep after the ball, just help out my teammates. I've just been trying to play solid. We have a balanced attack, five guys in double figures scoring the ball. I have no complaints, it's not about me but the team. As long as we're winning I'm happy."
Illinois impressed in the Gonzaga game by consistently making the extra pass to find the best open shot. The players responded by hitting a high percentage. That game reminded some of the great teamwork of the '04-'05 Illini team that came within an eyelash of the national championship. Davis is excited about the comparison.
"Yeah that's a compliment. We're trying to play hard. When looking at those films, just looking at how well those guys shared the ball, how nobody wanted the spotlight, they just wanted to win. If we do that like we did against Gonzaga, it'll be scary."
Davis hopes the 2010-11 season will be his best as an Illini. To do that, the team must be successful and go far in the NCAA Tournament. He believes that is possible.
"Realistically we should be Big 10 champions. Elite Eight at the minimum. We have a lot of talent on this team."
If Davis plays an all-around game and his teammates do likewise, his dreams can come to fruition.