McCamey loses weight, gains leadership

Last winter, Demetri McCamey could be spotted through the windows of fast food joints such as Big Mouth’s, McDonald’s and KFC. Now, he can only be found exiting Green Street eateries such as Subway and Noodles and Company.

McCamey, who lost nearly 20 pounds during the offseason, said he learned his speed on the court corresponds exactly with what he puts into his body. In recent months, he has substituted pasta and baked chicken for “fried everything.” Now weighing in at 197 pounds, the least ever during his time at Illinois, the junior guard said his mind tells him that he just feels quicker.

“I’m jumping better and just having more fun than I was,” McCamey said. “I’m not wheezing as heavy and not sweating as much. It’s better in every aspect of the game.”

But McCamey’s weight is not the only thing changing for the Illini. The role of team leader is undergoing a transformation as well.

With the departure of vocal leader Chester Frazier due to graduation, one of the tasks head coach Bruce Weber put on the chalkboard this summer was to find a dependable leader for the team.

In fact, McCamey said the main reason for losing the weight was because both Frazier and Trent Meacham had left, forcing somebody to step up to assume the veteran role.

“We don’t have a lot of seniors, so a lot of the pressure and expectations kind of go to that junior class,” Weber said. “That’s the basis of our program, the majority of our guys. We’re going to need those guys to do some of those things that Chester did and Trent did, the leadership and just keeping an even keel.”

At the moment, though, Illini leadership remains a question mark.

“You’re always as good as your upperclassmen, and we’re hoping to expect a lot out of those guys,” Weber said. “You have to be a leader when things are going good and when things aren’t going good, and I think that’s the question with all of those guys, those juniors. Can they be leaders when the game isn’t totally going their way, and maybe just swallow their pride and get the ball to the right person and say the right things and all of that stuff?”

After finishing with a 24-10 record last season (11-7 Big Ten), the Illini disappointed in the NCAA Tournament, exiting in the first round as the No. 5 seed with a 76-72 loss to No. 12 Western Kentucky.

“It still sticks to me today, but you can’t go back,” McCamey said of the loss. “It is what it is. We lost and that’s just bad taste, and now we know when we get to the tournament what to do with it: Don’t take everything for granted.”

McCamey led the team in scoring last season with 11.5 points per game and will be helped again this year by the duo of big men in juniors Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis.

“We’re going to work hard to not only make the NCAA Tournament but to move forward in the NCAA Tournament, and (the juniors) are going to have to take big steps,” Weber said.

“I hope it comes from maturity,” he added. “I hope it comes from rising up. We had the taste of getting in the NCAA Tournament, but obviously we weren’t ready to play. That’s a whole (new) level. We’re hoping that the experience of doing that and being part of that will be important.”

McCamey keeps a photo in his locker of him going in for a layup against the Hilltoppers in the tournament. It reminds him that the younger players look up to him, and that it’s his responsibility to help the program begin to recreate the national prominence it exhibited during the first half of the decade.

“Everybody knows it’s got to come from the point guard first because you can’t have a good team when you don’t have a point guard to be the coach on the floor,” McCamey said. “That’s why I was thinking in the offseason just to get in better shape and get toned and hopefully get back to the tournament and do big things when we get there.”

In his quest to become the leader, though, McCamey may have to keep the new kids on the block in his rearview mirror.

“This is probably one of the best groups I’ve seen since I’ve been here as far as the young guys and the older guys combined,” McCamey said.

“This summer was probably the first summer since I’ve been here that nobody missed class, missed a workout or even had trouble with the coaches.”

Weber, who distinctly stated McCamey will be the most important player on the roster this season, is working closely with him to help usher the freshmen in the right direction.

“We talked about how (Illinois football players) Juice (Williams) and Arrelious (Benn) got ready for the season and how they kept the guys out of the bars. Things like that. Everything he found, he gave it to (me),” McCamey said.

Weber also prints out articles for McCamey daily about NBA point guards he admires, including Deron Williams, Derrick Rose and Baron Davis. He wants the junior to work twice as hard as them because they are already receiving millions of dollars for what they do, while McCamey is still charting his course.

Weber noted how McCamey and his peers choose to accept and nourish the freshman class will determine how far the Illini will go.

“When they were freshmen, we had such a division from freshmen to the older group, and they probably didn’t help each other as needed,” Weber said. “I’ve reminded them of that.”

Weber also addressed the other side of the fence.

“We’ve challenged the freshmen,” he said. “(We told them) if they’re not going to lead you, you don’t have to wait for them. Go by them.”

Freshmen D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul have actually flown by McCamey in several of the squad’s practices.

“I think it’s a good thing,” Weber said. “It’s helping him. It’s pushing him. Chester pushed him, but all of last year we didn’t have enough people pushing him.”

“A lot of times the freshmen, you just pick on them,” Weber added. “(They) don’t understand the drill so you push them one way and steal the ball. But I haven’t seen anybody do that yet.”

Richardson often invites McCamey to join him in his dorm for meals, yet the two are always on separate teams during scrimmages and workouts.

They would rather be on opposite teams in order to push each other and make each other stronger.

“We all see (the upperclassmen) work hard, and we all try and work harder,” Richardson said of the freshmen. “We’re hungry.”

Richardson also spends a lot of time laughing and joking with Paul, last year’s Mr. Basketball in Illinois. Paul admitted he won’t be fulfilling Frazier’s role, but he said he hopes to take over what Meacham used to bring to the team.

The Gurnee, Ill., native, who likes to model his game after Miami Heat star Dwayne Wade, hopes to take after Meacham by remaining under opponents’ radars.

Although the freshman guard said he’s seen McCamey display leadership qualities thus far, it always seems to be Richardson who pushes Paul to work harder when he’s slacking. Richardson’s jokes and dances off the court are eclipsed by his toughness when it comes time for the freshman class to get down to work.

“Everybody was saying Illinois has four good freshmen — that’s all we heard before we got here,” Richardson said. “Now, we’ve got to live up to our name.”

McCamey said Richardson and company almost pose a threat to him.

“They are coming in to compete right away for playing time, and they know it’s a business and they’re ready and they’re excited,” he said of the freshmen.

“They’re never even tired. They don’t want to sit and try to redshirt freshman year. Everybody wants to play and get better.”

To supplement the junior class and the antsy freshmen, Weber will look to senior and Champaign native Bubba Chisholm as a “local spiritual leader.” He will also push senior Dominique Keller to take another step up on the court.

However, Weber knows baskets and rebounds alone won’t translate into another NCAA Tournament appearance.

“Talent doesn’t mean wins,” Weber said. “You’re going to have to have pieces to the puzzle and roles.”

McCamey is beginning to plant himself into the most important role on the team, and at this point he doesn’t seem to have much of a choice.

“You don’t have speedy Chester no more or Trent to help you out,” McCamey said. “Now, I’m the only veteran guard.”