Illini of the Week: McCamey is next in line

Demetri McCamey rebounds during the Indiana game at Assembly Hall on Thursday. Illinois lost in double overtime, 83-79. Erica Magda

Adam Babcock

Demetri McCamey rebounds during the Indiana game at Assembly Hall on Thursday. Illinois lost in double overtime, 83-79. Erica Magda

By Jeff LaBelle

It was as if somebody turned up the sun a few degrees, ready to boil the earth, when the student section spewed hot air on the blooming flower that was Indiana’s Eric Gordon.

Everyone tried to stomp him out at the onset, pounding into the ground with the heels of their feet, and at the same time were ready to douse the growth with poison – anything to make the Hoosiers fall to pieces. Anything so anybody but “us” would go home crying.

With the ground shaking, and voices billowing like storm clouds, a little seed in the Illini backcourt started to sprout. First one point came, then another, until the constant trickle of true shots overtook anything taking place in the stands. The show was no longer about what men and women in orange shirts would do next but what talent would shine through the violence.

Amid the most turbulent of circumstances that Assembly Hall has seen in at least two years, the big-body guard known as Demetri McCamey gave a brief preview of what lies in his underbelly, waiting to come out. He was showing a nation, and his friends across the hall, that Illinois has a freshman, too.

And maybe it took the most volatile of environments to bring it out. Maybe it took a stage so overblown, so filled with hate, for something real to emerge and set things straight again.

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He shot for the ceiling in one swoop, and scored 31 points in the biggest game of the year, as well as his career. McCamey cast a shadow over every other player on the court and soaked in stares that weren’t meant for him. It wasn’t supposed to be his game.

“I felt great out there,” McCamey said at practice Monday. “I was really comfortable and my shots kept falling – so I kept shooting.

“We had a chance to win the game multiple times, but the ball just didn’t bounce our way.”

By no means an unknown when the Illini nabbed him out of St. Joseph High School in Illinois, McCamey, a freshman, flourished on a national stage in the team’s 83-79 double-overtime loss against Indiana. He showed flashes of court vision that Illinois head coach Bruce Weber said is some of the best he’s seen in a young player, and he didn’t hesitate to spot up threes or running jumpers. McCamey didn’t hesitate for anything, really.

“We needed somebody to score and he took it upon himself,” Weber said. “Thirty points probably isn’t coming all the time, but if he can be consistent and give us 12, 15 or 17 points and some other things, it’ll be great.

“We try to stay on him and not let him get a big head because he’s still got a long ways to go,” Weber added, “and he realizes that.”

In the mold of his big guard predecessors, All-Americans Deron Williams and Frank Williams, McCamey could take the Illinois program, invigorate it, and shape it into his own for the next three seasons. Taking the reins as early as next year, McCamey will play next to shooting guards Alex Legion and Jamar Smith when the two are eligible to become part of the team’s plans, as well as the current lineup of Illinois guards.

It’s a talent-laden backcourt that will shift shapes over time as a flurry of high school guards – five to be exact- are already slated to play with McCamey going into the 2010-2011 season, barring unforeseen events. As he sets out on this journey, it doesn’t hurt that McCamey has guidance from a few knowledgeable sources.

“Dee (Brown) came and talked to us and told us to stay together as a team,” McCamey said, alluding to halftime of Thursday’s game. “He talked to me individually and told me to just keep the guys going and to lead by example. If I do well then others will follow.

“I have Dee, Deron (Williams) and Luther’s (Head) number, and they’ve just told me to keep my head up and keep playing hard,” he added. “Being able to talk to them is really good and it’s helped my game out a lot.”

Careful not to get too excited about one game, 40 minutes in the relatively young career of a freshman college player, McCamey and coaches are downplaying the significance of his breakout performance against Indiana. Their reaction draws on the tested logic that everybody has to start somewhere, and anybody could have chosen the biggest, most heated stage, to get things rolling.

But it wasn’t just anybody that scored 31 points on 11-of-20 shooting from the field. It was McCamey. And people might someday refer to it as “the first day” the guard flashed greatness.

“He played great and kept us in the game. He gave us a chance to win and made some huge shots,” senior Brian Randle said. “I can’t say he’s going to get 30 points every night but for him to step up and make an impact like that – it is really promising for his future and our team’s future.”

Jason Grodsky contributed to this report.

Illini of the Week honorable mention

Gakologelwang Masheto, Men’s track and Field

For the majority of the indoor season, Masheto has been drawing attention for his outstanding performances. On Friday, Masheto, a native of Botswana, broke the collegiate record in 500-meter at the New Balance Collegiate Invitational with a time of 1:00.82. In just his first time running the event, Masheto blew by the field of 56 en route to topping the mark previously set in 1987. His accomplishment earned him his second Big Ten Player of the Week in a row.

Paul Ruggeri, Men’s gymnastics

At first glance, Ruggeri’s eighth-place finish at last weekend’s competition might seem like a less-than stellar finish. But considering the competition, a field of U.S. greats including Olympian Paul Hamm, the freshman’s score of 171.100 was quite remarkable. Out of all the collegiate performers, Ruggeri came in second and beat out teammate Wes Haagensen, who ended up in 11th place.