McCamey Wishes Maturity Had Come Sooner

Demetri McCamey (Jack Lyman)

Everyone on the Fighting Illini basketball team depends on one teammate over all others to play well game in and game out. For four years, Demetri McCamey has shown tremendous potential and has frequently fulfilled it. He has been the straw that stirs the drink. With his college career winding down, he now realizes he could have done even better.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber was asked to summarize what Demetri McCamey has meant to the Illini team.

"Demetri is a talented young man. He made the transition from combo guard to point guard. Great vision as a passer. Second player in the history of the Big 10 to get 1600 points and 700 assists. That's pretty amazing when you look at all the great guards, all the great players who have played.

"He's had his ups and downs like all of them. But he seems to be playing pretty well right now. I've said since the beginning. How we go is how Demetri goes."

Throughout his career, McCamey has blown hot and cold. He will have several games where he hits a high percentage of shots while setting teammates up for open looks. When he is playing well, he is a true scoring point guard.

However, he also goes through slumps where he lacks energy and struggles making shots. Since his teammates need him as the only true creator on the team, and since his buoyant energy uplifts them when he's confident and playing well, the team slumps when McCamey slumps.

Everyone has down cycles, but McCamey sometimes explores the darkest depths of emotion when he is playing poorly. It affects his game, and it brings down his teammates. Little by little, he has begun to balance the extremes. If he could, he would love to change some things earlier in his career.

"Just being a bald-headed freshman. You go back and say, 'Damn, if I did this a little bit harder or maybe if I was listening to this as a freshman, I would have had a better sophomore year. As a freshman, just having growing pains. As a senior knowing what to do, I wish I could have been more mature quicker.

"I always wanted to do things my way and not listen, but now I know having Coach Weber and all the coaches has been good for me. It's brought me from a boy to a man."

It might be an understatement to say McCamey resisted coaching at times. His relationship with Weber was sometimes strained, especially early in his career. But McCamey has become more coachable and Weber more trusting, allowing the two to find common ground.

"We've got closer and closer. As a freshman, I could probably count on my hand how many times I was in the office to watch film or just talk to him as a person. Just laugh, crack jokes and watch youtube videos.

"Now it's more serious business. I come in and talk to him to see what is the game plan, what I did wrong on this play, what I should have done on that play. So it's more mature and more business-like."

From the beginning, McCamey has benefitted more from someone pushing him than giving him plaudits. Despite occasional resistance, McCamey kept coming back for more. Weber believes the media has exaggerated the problems between the two.

"It's been fine. I think you guys have made the bigger deal, the fans have made the bigger deal. Demetri's a great kid, a fun-loving guy. The thing that got misconstrued, I was just trying to get him to be his best. Being hard on him, giving him tough love. When you see that, everybody says, 'Oh, they don't get along.'

"Demetri's hard-headed, but he's no more hard-headed than Deron Williams or Dee Brown or anyone else. He has great abilities, great potential. I have just tried to push him to get there. I still think he has a chance to be an NBA player."

The Westchester St. Joseph product has needed Weber pushing him to improve. From the beginning, he tended to take the easy way out. If he saw no one looking, he would cut short practice drills. If he could get away with it, he would rest on defense to save himself for offense.

Weber hopes self-motivation will push McCamey to go beyond his limits without the coach having to remind him constantly. After all, he will soon be on his own.

"The biggest thing is, making the commitments with pushing himself. I'm hoping he can have a great finish for himself, for our team. There's no doubt he has a lot of ability, the stats show it. He has a tendency as a player to be a little casual and laid-back at times. And as a person too. He'll come in the office smiling and giggling.

"That's all I've tried to do. I just want the best for him. If he's learned any lesson, and it helps him in life, that's to be motivated and drive himself. That's his chance of making it because he has a great vision as a player. When he's cookin' and playing well, he's pretty good. He's as talented as anybody, and we're pretty good."

As McCamey reflects on his four years, he marvels at the changes.

"The time has gone fast. I can barely remember freshman year. I was playing with Shaun (Pruitt) and Brian Randle. Now I'm a senior, and I'm playing with Jereme (Richmond). I played with his brother, and I watched him play in high school. It makes me feel old now."

McCamey's favorite team memory took place his junior season when GameDay came to town.

"I'd say the Michigan State win. Having the fans up at 7:00 in the morning, be there all day and the game not end until 10-11 o'clock at night. That's the craziest I've ever seen Green Street. Everybody drinking, going crazy, in the middle of the street yelling. That's probably the thing I cherish the most."

The mood on campus has changed markedly since then, especially during much of the Big 10 season when the Illini played poorly on the road and fans lost confidence in them.

"It's not what the fans are saying or what the newspapers are saying, it's the spirit on campus. At the beginning it was alive. Everyone was having fun, all the fans cheering and everything. Now it's kind of dull.

"But at the same time, we've got to win ball games. It's up to the team and the coaching staff. They can love you or hate you, but you can only control what you do on the floor. You have to try to get wins. Everybody loves winners."

One group of Illini fans hasn't wavered in support of the team, and McCamey appreciates it.

"It's tremendous knowing all the hard work the Orange Krush went through night in and night out. They went to Minnesota and a couple more places with long hours of driving, knowing they had class the next morning. It's trying to give back to the fans and trying to win a ball game."

While he can't explain exactly why he suffered a prolonged mid-season slump, a combination of factors conspired against him and the team. McCamey says the pressure to win games against quality teams up and down the Big 10 lineup played a role.

"A little bit. And knowing you had good shots but were not hitting them, shots you usually make day in and day out, and then the team losing. That built a little bit of stress. But now everybody is fighting and leaving it all on the court."

Weber reminds that Big 10 opponents have a primary goal to stop McCamey. He has a target on his back, and he must step up his game even more to counter opposing defenses.

"I think all year and in the Big 10, especially when you get into the second time of playing people, they've got to make a decision: how do you guard him? They jammed him on ball screens, they tried to deny him, they made him fight for things. People are gonna try to take the ball out of his hands. That's just smart basketball.

"That's where he's got to be mature. He's gonna have to make the easy play, the easy pass, the easy read and be happy that he got assists and we made shots and we win."

The same is true on the defensive end. The first three years of his college career, Weber had to hide his point guard by having him guard the weakest opponent. Even then, he got burned frequently. While he is still far from perfect, McCamey has worked to improve his defense this season according to Weber.

"It's gotten better, he's playing harder. Is he a defensive stopper, no. But he's definitely gotten better and trying to do it. I think he has ability, it's just commitment and pushing himself."

Little by little, McCamey's shot and his confidence have returned. It's no coincidence the Illini have played better also. Although they lost, the game at Purdue may have been a turning point.

"After the Purdue game, it seemed like the beginning of the season," McCamey reflected. "Guys were flashing to the basketball. We had a good Purdue team, 6th in the country, beat in the first half. We just didn't finish the second half."

Their play reminded of the Illini team that defeated quality North Carolina and Gonzaga squads early in the season. Knowing they must continue winning to reach the NCAA Tournament provides extra impetus. The Illini believe they can end the season on a positive note.

"Everybody was talking about how great we were when we were ranked at the beginning of the season. It really matters now, so if we do get in to the NCAA Tournament, it's zero to zero. It's whoever is playing the best basketball at that moment. We're picking it up each and every week and getting back to what we had at the beginning of the year. Which was a plus for us."

Most prognosticators say the Illini are guaranteed a spot in the Tournament, but McCamey refuses to believe that until it happens. He doesn't want a repeat of last year.

"The NCAA Tournament is out of our hands. We had Ohio State two overtimes and could have had a chance to win that game. Everybody thought we was in, but we wasn't. We can't control all that. All we know is we've got to keep winning. We've got to wait until Selection Sunday."

Whatever happens the rest of the season, McCamey feels next year's Illini team has the makings of a quality group without him.

"They're gonna be real athletic. They need somebody who can control tempo. Tracy (Abrams) has good qualities in doing that. And D.J. (Richardson) with another year, and Brandon (Paul) improving ball handling and things like that, they're gonna be capable.

"They're gonna be one of the top teams in the country paper-wise. I think with hard work and just a little more dedication, ball handling and decision-making, I think they'll be fine."

When asked his star's biggest improvement over his career, Weber provided a revealing response.

"Maturity. He's come a long way, from school to life to basketball. Just understanding what it's about. What you've got to do and how consistent you have to be. Those are the things he's made strides in.

"And he said it after the (Indiana) game, it's gonna give him a chance in life. I just hope he takes that next step, really getting that fire going, that drive. He has the opportunity and ability to do it."

McCamey was named third team All-Big Ten, but the conference was loaded with quality guards who had exceptional years. The mid-season slump likely ruined a better result, but his days of playing basketball are far from over.

Now that he is maturing and seeing a bigger picture, McCamey can hopefully enjoy a long professional career somewhere. Weber says McCamey can enhance his NBA chances "a lot" with quality play in the post season.

"We got to the big, big state, but I bet Deron jumped from the end or middle of the first round to the top of the round. Everybody's watching. First impression is always important, but the last one is just as important. And he's playing well right now. I hope that continues."

Whatever happens the rest of this season, he will be difficult if not impossible to replace at Illinois.

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