Illinois coach Bruce Weber is being bombarded with questions and suggestions from well-meaning fans on how to improve his Jekyll-Hyde basketball team. Great one game and frustrating the next, the team can't seem to find consistent play from its best players. Among them are four seniors who have yet to match the high expectations others have for them.
"I want the seniors to do well," Weber admits. "But at the same time, we've got to try to win ball games. That's the most important thing. Our team is the most important thing."
Weber knows he must somehow stimulate Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis, Mike Tisdale and Bill Cole to find their perfected selves soon if he wants his Illini to reach the NCAA Tournament. But he is not ready to throw them under the bus in favor of untried rookies. Despite their inconsistencies, Weber reminds how much they have contributed to the Illini program the last four years.
"They've all done really special things. Demetri will go down in history, not only at Illinois but in the Big 10. Mike Davis is a 1000 point scorer and in the top 5 or so rebounding. Mike Tisdale is a 1000 point scorer.
"Billy Cole to me is a great, great story. He's taken more abuse from the fans than anybody, and he's persevered through it. At points, he may be as valuable as anybody on our team."
The McCamey story is somewhat like that of former Illinois football quarterback Juice Williams. In both cases, they set or are about to set all-time records at Illinois. And yet they haven't taken their teams to heights expected of record-breakers. After four years in the limelight, fans are beginning to remember only their faults and not their good qualities.
Weber spent time at his latest press conference summarizing McCamey's most recent problems.
"I think early, up until the last month, Demetri was playing like one of the best point guards in the country. He's stats said it, our winning showed it. He was doing a lot of very good things and was efficient. He has hit a tough stretch, and it puts us in a bind."
While most players play better with encouragement and positive reinforcement, it seems to have the opposite effect on McCamey.
"A characteristic of our team the last two years, we have some success and we tend to get casual or complacent. Demetri is one of those. He had a great run, and everyone was talking about him. Then he got a little complacent.
"Now he's trying to turn it back on, but he let some things slip a little bit. Now he's got to scramble and catch up. When you get complacent and don't have that edge, now things aren't going your way and you start forcing it a little bit. He's just got to let the game come to him.
"I'm hoping since Demetri made some shots, made some plays down the stretch (against Northwestern), maybe that will be a little confidence boost for him. But it starts in practice on a daily basis. That's where he's got to change."
Weber says Tisdale's offensive success is heavily dependent on McCamey.
"We've got to find ways to get Mike Tisdale shots. He's still shooting 51%, 38% from three. He cannot create shots on his own. When Chester (Frazier) was here, he did it off penetration.
"Mike Tisdale relies on Demetri. If Demetri is playing well, picking and popping, moving and kicking, pushing and hitting the trailer, that's where Mike Tisdale can be successful. Brandon Paul can start doing that and help Tisdale. He needs to get the short jumpers. He's given us a nice effort on the boards, he's improved on that.
"His defense definitely has to get better. He and Demetri's defense has to get better. They're not gonna be defensive stoppers, but they have to be more consistent for us on not getting beat on one-on-one plays if we're gonna have a good finish here."
Like the other two, Davis has a history of letting shooting slumps affect his overall game. He has shown positive signs recently. Weber hopes it means he has made lasting improvement.
"I think Mike Davis, his body language, his effort and his defense have been very good the last 2 to 3 weeks. He missed some shots (at Northwestern), and that was disappointing. He has struggled at times with physical play. But at least he's keeping his head about him.
"He's trying to be a leader, he's trying to play hard and has led us on the play-hard chart. I hope he can continue. It would be nice when he gets those shots inside, if he can make them."
Weber says Cole, the least heralded senior, doesn't get the recognition he deserves.
"Billy Cole has been as consistent as anyone on our team. His numbers show it in the Big 10 stats: 59% field goals, 46% from three, 16 to 3 assists to turnovers, 3.2 rebounds, he's gotten offensive rebounds for us. He's one of our leaders on the play-hard chart, and he's done a great job defensively. He's been very good."
Confidence with this group is like a Tsunami. It rises and falls violently like a giant wave. Weber has ridden the crest of that wave these last four years and has suffered with it more than any outsider. But he is ready to go to battle with them again, the next game being Thursday night in Minnesota.
"They're great kids. Probably one of their downfalls is they're too good of kids. They need a little orneriness on the court. Maybe that's the one missing thing they don't have. I'm just hoping for their sake that they can have a good finish and do some special things and leave a real positive legacy."