Illini on national radar after disappointing 2007-08 campaign

By Jeremy Werner

A year ago today, turmoil within the locker room, among other factors, had earned the struggling Illinois men’s basketball team a 10-11 record. Now, the No. 19 Illini stand at 17-3 and continue to climb the national rankings.

Though the players are not holding hands and singing “Kumbaya,” they sure are having fun. So how did this sudden turnaround come about?


It is not a well-kept secret that the 2007-08 team was a little, well, unsettled both on the court and in the locker room. With six newcomers to the active roster, five freshmen and a junior college transfer, the Illini expected growing pains. But obstacles and distractions began to stockpile.

The team’s top offensive weapon, Jamar Smith, was forced to sit out a season with off-the-court issues. Center Brian Carlwell transferred to San Diego State just a year after suffering a severe concussion in a Feb. 12, 2007 car crash in which Smith was charged with aggravated driving under the influence.

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The team’s top scorer, senior Shaun Pruitt, had multiple spats with the coaching staff, culminating in an altercation in the locker room following a Jan. 19 loss to Purdue.

“Last year, guys would go all day without talking to each other,” senior guard Chester Frazier said at Big Ten media day in October. “There were cliques on the team, two people over here, two people over there.”

But this season has been almost distraction-free. Smith was dismissed from the team on July 31 after violating his probation, but Illinois has already notched one more win than last season’s total of 16 – with 11 games and the Big Ten Tournament still remaining.

“We’re more like a family on the court,” sophomore guard Demetri McCamey said.

“We stay together and just keep our composure through tough times. We keep talking to each other and helping each other instead of getting down.”

Weber said he hasn’t changed his coaching style, but rather his players have been more receptive to his methods.

“They’re coachable,” Weber said.

The coach added, “We don’t have to fight them all the time, that’s the big thing. Last year, I couldn’t do any motivational things: T-shirts, the feel-good tapes, people coming in to talk to them. I think (now) they appreciate it. It’s fun to coach. Last year, I was just trying to keep sanity I think more than anything. This year, it’s a little different.”

Senior leadership

Pruitt and Brian Randle were No. 1 and No. 3 on the team in scoring last season, respectively, but Weber repeatedly said he needed more of an intangible contribution from the seniors. Players said last season’s team may have been more concentrated on their individual futures rather than on the team’s success.

The Illini’s elder statesmen spent little time with the underclassmen off the court. But this season, age is not a divider on the roster.

“I wouldn’t consider anyone a senior or anything like that. I just think everybody feels like they’re on the team,” sophomore center Mike Tisdale said.

“Whether it’s Trent (Meacham), who’s 23 (years old), or Stan (Simpson) who just turned 19, I think we treat everyone with the same amount of respect.”

Frazier is the unquestioned leader of the team, sophomore Bill Cole said. The senior point guard was dubbed “Coach Frazier” during summer open gym practices for his direction when coaches were limited in their contact with players.

While Frazier is the vocal leader, Trent Meacham and Calvin Brock lead by example, players and coaches said.

Known as the team’s best outside shooting threat, Meacham has become a reliable defender who can aid Frazier in shutting down opponents’ best players.

Brock, whose role on the team was unclear during the summer, has “developed a niche” as a sparkplug off the bench, Weber said. Though his stats aren’t gaudy, Weber and the Illini have applauded Brock for his effort plays: tips, deflections, rebounds and steals.

“I think each (senior) in their own way has done a nice job, not only the leadership, but they’ve mixed well with the younger guys,” Weber said. “They get along with the younger guys. They hang out with the younger guys. That’s so important for the team.”

Player development

Heading into the season, questions were asked about who would pick up the slack for the departed seniors. Now, a trio of sophomores have stepped up to become the Illini’s top-three leading scorers: McCamey, Tisdale and Mike Davis.

While McCamey showed signs of becoming a star as a freshman, Davis and Tisdale had limited roles. But each has been a major producer in Illinois’ early season success.

The sophomore post players have received praise from several Big Ten coaches, including Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan.

Davis has even garnered national recognition. Sports Illustrated recently ran a story labeling Davis as the surprise player on the surprise team (Illinois) in the nation’s surprise conference (Big Ten).

“We needed (Davis and Tisdale) to have this kind of year,” Frazier said.

“Obviously, they didn’t play much as freshmen. But coming in this year, we knew their role would change. We needed them to hold it down in the paint for us.”

Meanwhile, McCamey is gradually becoming the Illini’s go-to player. He leads the team with 12.5 points per game and is maturing as a distributor, averaging 5.1 assists.

Though Weber has recently praised the sophomore guard for his defensive effort, a source of great criticism just weeks ago, McCamey has not yet shown the consistent effort his coach yearns for.

“If he wants to be a big time player – I think it’s a possibility and it’s in his dreams – he’s got to be more consistent on a daily basis, in practice, on both ends of the court, which will carry over to games,” Weber said.

Climbing the mountain

Despite making big strides, Illinois still relies heavily on young players. Weber has pointed out the team’s weaknesses – rebounding and the lack of a player who can take over games – though he said McCamey could eventually be that player.

But 20 games into the season, the Illini are on pace to receive their ninth NCAA Tournament bid in 10 years and are restoring the luster to Illinois basketball.

“The thing that they have to deal with now is everybody telling them how good they are,” Weber said.

“That’s a big key, for me, as far as their focus.

“I talked about how it’s easier to climb the mountain without expectations than to stay up there. Now you’re there, and you want to stay there.”