Illinois has talent throughout its roster, but it has only one experienced point guard. Senior Demetri McCamey has major responsibilities, and he has responded well most of the season. As McCamey goes, so goes the team.
In games through January 6, McCamey is ninth in the Big 10 with a 16.2 point scoring average per game. That increases to 18.3 points a game counting only his three Big 10 outings to date. He is also second in the conference and fifth in the nation in assists, averaging 7.25 a game.
Beyond that, he is the emotional leader of the team. When he is feeling good about himself, his energy rubs off on his teammates and enhances their play. When he's down or discouraged, his success drops precipitously and so does the team as a whole. Illini coach Bruce Weber says McCamey isn't a natural leader, but he understands his role better.
"He's made strides. He's been a positive force for us. Is he what Dee (Brown) or Deron (Williams) is, no probably. But at the same time he's made a lot of strides."
McCamey explored the possibility of leaving early for the NBA draft after last season but was advised to return for his senior year. Weber was asked if he has now reached elite status.
"I'm not sure, I think he's teetering. I think he needs to have a couple big games. That was one thing I mentioned to him after Northern Colorado. I said, 'This isn't a selfish statement for you, but this is the kind of game you needed to really step forward and get a triple double or something like that. Do something that's unusual.
"His personality, he just kind of goes along and does his thing. And then with Oakland, we're struggling and he takes us to the promised land. We jumped on his back, and he's the guy that made the plays in the second half.
"One of his problems getting to that elite group is just doing it every game. That's what we're striving for, pushing him to do it. I hope he gets the opportunity to get recognized."
McCamey has always enjoyed a scoring role, and he fancies himself a three point shooter. In previous years, he would sometimes take a "heat check" not within the offensive flow. If he made it, he played with confidence; if not, he got down on himself. Weber has worked to help him develop a higher success rate on threes, and it appears to be paying off.
"He's had spurts where he's played good in other years and shot well, and then he'll have the games where he will go 1 for 11. He's had a handful of those throughout his career.
"I think some of it's better shot selection, and he's put in more time. I constantly have hounded him, 'You're a career 29-31% shooter. You've got to shoot better than that if you're gonna continue to put them up like you do.'
"He's put more time into it, and he's done a better job of which shots he's taking. And he's a senior and more confident, feeling good about himself."
McCamey came back after Christmas with an increased desire to penetrate either for layups or assists. Weber has wanted that from him for four years. It makes him harder to guard; he has more options including getting to the free throw line, and it opens up his outside shot according to his coach.
"The nice thing, if he continues driving to the basket, now it's gonna give him a chance to get some open looks. Whether it's a ball screen, and they're worried about him getting to the paint, or driving.
"He's pretty good at that step-back driving, getting the guy back and stepping back and shooting it. I think the big thing is, shoot them when you're open. If a guy's hand is in your face, then it's probably not the best shot. Especially early in the shot clock."
McCamey would love to have gone pro last year, but he now accepts his fate for the advantages it offers. Returning to Illinois was a blessing in disguise.
"Most definitely. Just taking the development in the summer, losing the weight to become quicker and more explosive and doing the things they tell you to do. You get an extra year in college to do it instead of going in the second round and sitting on somebody's bench where you can't learn in practice or play in the games.
"It was a great experience I had last summer trying out with the (Houston) Rockets. They taught me a lot of things and made me humble for the summer."
Weber and McCamey have always had an interesting relationship. Weber thinks like a point guard and is always pushing his star to keep improving and never settle. McCamey has balked at the coaching at times, but he respects Weber.
Each year the relationship has improved, and the two are now working together for common goals. Plus, hearing from the NBA helped McCamey appreciate his coach more.
"He tells you everything that's true. He's not gonna hold things back. He's not gonna make you think you're the best player without any flaws. He wants you to get better, so he wants you to focus on the negative things about your game and helps you become a well-rounded player."
The Westchester St. Joseph graduate now realizes how much he can learn from his coach and is picking his brain to become a more complete point guard.
"We're two competitive players who want to win. It's a great combination."
McCamey can see improvement since last season.
"Just understanding the game better. Picking your times and spots, getting the big guys involved, knowing when you have to score and when you have to set the tone by getting assists. I think I'm a better student of the game now."
He is now an advocate of having college players stay in college and continue to learn. Some are even saying he may be playing himself into a first round NBA draft pick. Regardless, it has really helped him.
"Most definitely. You've been there, done it. You've got the spirits in you to just sit back in pressure situations and make the right play because you've been through it the first three years if you're a senior. If you're a sophomore, you've been through it freshman year so you know a little bit of it. But it's always good to have an upperclassman leading the way.
"Each and every year, each and every practice, you get your basketball IQ, your basketball knowledge up. You become a student of the game.
"When you're a freshman, you're a player. You just want to play so you can play against the top players in the Big 10 and the country. You're not worried about being a student of the game and worrying about things bigger than basketball. Now as a senior you see those things, and you focus more on the little details."
The 6'-3", 205 pounder spends more time in the film room as a senior.
"It's not just college games, it's NBA games as well. I'm trying to take some things Deron and Chris Paul are doing on the pick-and-roll and trying to bring it back and show (Mike) Tisdale and Mike Davis that we can do this too. I'm just trying to be more well-rounded, trying to be a student of the game."
McCamey is excited about the potential of the Illini team, but he realizes more work is required.
"I've seen all the top-tens play this year, and I think we're right up there. We have the personnel. Once we correct some things like our rebounding, getting stops down the stretch and getting to the free throw line that we need to, we're right there with the teams. We've just got to keep on playing and fighting, and we'll beat them.
"Everyone says we should be (undefeated) and one of the top teams in the country. But we're not a perfect team by any means. If we become a complete team, then we can talk about the NCAA."
In past years, visions of NBA glory may have danced through McCamey's head when he popped a 25-footer against good competition. As a senior, he has his priorities in order.
"I'm not thinking about the NBA right now. I'm just worried about winning basketball games. All the All-American and good stuff, that'll take care of itself. You really have no control over that anyway."