Illini basketball finds success in China



By Jeremy Werner

Jerrance Howard slept through the first tremor that shook Champaign on April 18 because he was “knocked out in a coma sleeping.” The Illinois assistant coach said he felt like he was the only one who did not feel anything from the 5.2-magnitude earthquake centered in southern Illinois.

But Howard felt the quake in China.

Howard departed for China to coach nine collegiate players, including Illinois’ Demetri McCamey and Mike Davis, on the Reach USA tour just two days after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake devastated the country.

Howard said he felt three aftershocks during his week-long visit.

“They lasted about four seconds,” Howard said. “One time I was in my room, and I just saw the water moving then I felt something underneath me. My heart goes out to those families. It really affected the whole country.”

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The final two games of the tour were cancelled as players became frightened of the tremors.

“They did get a little scared about the earthquake, and the atmosphere over there was just really tense with the loss of all those people,” Howard said.

The death toll from the quake had risen to more than 69,000 by the Sunday of the tournament, but the grave condition did not stop Chinese basketball fans from packing arenas to see who they thought were NBA players.

“It was like 5,000 people or more coming out, so it brought a sense of relief and brought some energy and new life around the country, so they really embraced us,” Howard said.

The trip was the first head coaching experience for the second-year Illinois assistant. After coaching the team to a 1-3-1 record against Chinese professional team Shandong Gold, Howard said he sent a text message to Bruce Weber expressing his respect for the Illinois head coach on “a whole ‘nother level.”

“I have a dream and a passion to be (a head coach) one day, but it was a humbling experience,” Howard said.

McCamey was the new kid on the block for the Illini last season, but the sophomore point guard was easily the most experienced player on a team that included three redshirt freshmen that had not yet played in a single NCAA game.

McCamey averaged 10.6 points, 8.6 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 2.2 steals per game during the tour.

Howard said McCamey improved on defense and was the leader of the team, something the Illinois coaching staff hopes the sophomore can do with his regular team during the upcoming season.

“(McCamey) was really more productive in being more vocal, grabbing guys in the huddle and just running the show, and I was really proud of that,” Howard said.

Davis averaged 5.2 points and 5.2 rebounds per game.

The sophomore forward showed the consistency and defensive presence the Illini will need to be successful in the Big Ten in the years to come, Howard said.

Despite visiting a country in mourning and experiencing three nerve-wrecking aftershocks, Howard said he would like to participate in the China tour in the future.

“It was great competition and a lifelong experience,” Howard said. “I had so much fun and the guys did so well that I want to go back next year and do it.”

Legion excels in Poland

Howard, Davis and McCamey were not the only Illini spending part of their summer abroad. Sophomore Alex Legion traveled to Poland last week as part of a tour with Athletes in Action, a sports ministry group.

Legion played three games in Poland and would not give the back of the net a break. Statistics were not available from the AIA, but Howard reported games of 35 and 27 points for the Kentucky transfer.

Howard said Legion fits well in the Illinois motion offense and will be a key addition to an offense losing senior post players Shaun Pruitt and Brian Randle, two of the Illini’s top three scorers last season.

There is still a question mark as to who can step up to replace Pruitt and Randle in the post, but the Illini will become a perimeter-oriented team with the addition of Legion and return of junior Jamar Smith, who redshirted last season.

Howard said that with seniors Chester Frazier and Trent Meacham also returning, along with sophomore Jeff Jordan,, the Illini have “pretty good guards to go to war with” in the upcoming season.