If Illinois is to field a basketball team capable of fulfilling expectations, it must get quality leadership from its upperclassmen. In particular, the large junior class must lead the team both on and off the court.
Junior point guard Demetri McCamey has shown flashes of brilliance in the past, but he lacked consistency. And his endurance was questioned, especially on the defensive end and late in games. To be the player he wants and the Illini need, he had to make major improvements in his work ethic.
Fortunately, it appears he has done that. He has lost 20 pounds and is much quicker. Associate Head Coach Wayne McClain calls him more coachable. He is doing and saying all the right things. Does he feel he is now more coachable?
"Most definitely. Coming in, I thought I was doing things right and wanted to do things my way. At the same time, you've gotta respect your elders and most importantly your coaches. They know what's best for you and the team. I started trusting them."
The old McCamey might look for the easy way out. He would do the minimum required, but he was reluctant to go beyond that limit. As a result, he always seemed on the verge of stardom but unable to take the next step. Now, things may be different.
"If we want to have a successful season, it starts with your point guard. That's what I figured out. I worked on it this summer, talking to Deron (Williams), Dee (Brown) and everyone about leadership. I want to prove to everyone that I can be a good leader."
Williams spent time with McCamey, mentor to protege.
"He showed me some skills. But the last trip, we were talking more about the leadership role than anything else."
Part of leadership is on the court.
"Now I have to give commands and back it up with my actions as far as taking on what Coach Weber is thinking and what I'm thinking. It's just more responsibility, and I'm willing to take on that challenge."
The other part is preparing your body and mind for the rigors of a long, arduous schedule. He admits he was not in the best shape his first two seasons.
"We've got 20 minutes for a half. The first ten I wanted to relax so as not to wear myself down if it was gonna be a tight game. But now, we just have to keep pushing. If you get tired, get out and get right back in. That relates to leadership and being more mature as well."
McCamey saw how Williams transformed his once pudgy body into a rock-hard physical specimen and how his improved conditioning helped his game.
"Seeing how he improved this last year, working on his body after he got hurt, he played well. I look at that role and see I could do the same thing. I just need to get my body trimmed down and hopefully produce like Deron is.
"Now he has like 5-6% body fat. One time, I tried to call an offensive foul while he was here. He wouldn't accept it. He just said it was a grown man move and kept going."
To produce like his idol, McCamey made a major effort to lose weight and gain endurance. Eating better and working out harder have done wonders for him.
"Just running, lifting and shooting all summer. Even though I lost weight, I retained my strength. I weigh 197 right now. We haven't tested for body fat yet. When I first came in, I was like 12%, but it should be lower now."
He is pleased with the results.
"I believe coming in at the beginning of the season, having your body fit and ready for game action will help me tremendously as far as picking up the pace. Now, I can have a productive game on both offense and defense and not have one end better than the other."
While he was on campus, Williams worked out on his own. He would set up cones on the floor to represent defenders. Over and over, he would practice dribbling through the interference and pulling up for jumpers, driving to the hoop, or finding imaginary teammates for open shots. Now, McCamey is doing the same thing.
"Coach (Bruce) Weber saw that, so since individuals we've been doing two cone drills. Coach came to me, and I agreed on it. This year, I'm the only returner who was pushing up the ball and had experience at being a good ball handler. He knows that's probably gonna be one of the weaknesses of the team. So he's given everybody drills to work on it."
If McCamey can play hard consistently, and if he submits to Coach's authority and carries out his responsibilities properly, he will have his best season. And the Illini will make a run in the NCAA Tournament.