Bruce Weber is not having his finest season at Illinois. It's not just that the Illini are mediocre. It's that the Illini are mediocre despite having one of the most talented teams in the Big Ten, a team stocked with top-level recruits, three senior starters, a coterie of accurate outside shooters and a point guard who has at various times in his career looked like the best guard -- and arguably the best player -- in the country.
That point guard is Demetri McCamey. As you probably know, McCamey's senior season has not lived up to advance billing, especially during Big Ten play. The guard's overall season averages -- 14.4 points and 6.5 assists per game -- look solid, but they belie McCamey's ugly two-point field goal percentage (41.8 percent; by contrast, McCamey is shooting 47.2 percent from 3) and a recent midseason disappearing act. Since Jan. 11, Illinois has lost six of nine Big Ten games. In that span, McCamey has posted four single-digit scoring performances and a flurry of ugly shooting nights, including the following: 3-of-8, 3-of-13, 4-of-11, 2-of-11, 2-of-11, 2-of-9, 1-of-10. (His assist totals have also plummeted; McCamey hasn't posted most than five assists in any game since Jan. 18.)
That most recent effort -- four points on 1-of-10 from the field in a home loss to Purdue -- came just three days after Illinois had seemed to right its ship with a solid win at Minnesota. That's when Bruce Weber benched McCamey, freshman Jereme Richmond and senior forward Mike Tisdale for the start of the game in one of those last-ditch, "Well, I've got to try something!" coaching moves you see desperate coaches use every now and again. And it seemed to work! McCamey played well, Illinois got the win, and whatever it was that had been bothering this team for weeks seemed to be a thing of the past.
Then Purdue came to town, Illinois lost thanks to a meandering, weakly played second half, and the Illini were suddenly right back to square one.
What's the cause of all this? What mysterious factors have caused a seemingly talented team -- and its seemingly elite point guard -- to be so uneven on the court? Is it chemistry? Coaching? Playing style? Something else? As reported by ESPN Chicago's Scott Powers, in an interview Friday on ESPN 1000 (two days before the Purdue loss), Weber took a crack at his own version of an answer:
"It's disappointing, some of it is Demetri, obviously," Weber said Friday on "The Waddle & Silvy Show" on ESPN 1000. "But the outside influences, just kill kids, I'm just telling you. I feel bad. He was playing so well, and all of a sudden, the runners, the agents, the third-party people, they're all telling him he's an all-American and this and that.
"Then, he stopped coming in to work hard and spend extra time on his shot and all the stuff you need to do. Here, I'm saying give a five-month commitment, put more time in, and they're telling him how great he is. It just screws up kids. It's not just me. If you talk to our the football coaches, you can talk to other coaches in the Big Ten, it's one of the worst things we have to deal with in college basketball is the outside influences, the third parties, the agents, the runners, whatever. It's that honestly.
[...] "He's a kid," Weber said. "If you're a kid, would you rather hear Coach Weber say 'come in and work harder' or 'you're great?'"
Later in the interview, Weber extended that philosophy to his whole team, saying the Illini hadn't been playing hard because "outside influences" started to infect individual players with concerns over playing time, minutes, exposure and the like.
Weber's right: This is not a problem unique to the Illini, nor is it a problem that is easily solved from a coaching perspective. "Outside influences," like that weird ant parasite from "Planet Earth," have a way of insinuating themselves into the fabric of successful teams, and once they're there they're very hard to expel.
Still, as much as you might feel for Weber -- battling all these sexy "outside influences" with the unappetizing alternatives of "commitment" and "hard work" and "more hours in the gym," which is not a fair fight -- at some point, the coach bears the brunt of the blame here. Ultimately, it's the program's job to make sure its players are collectively focused. Ultimately, it's the coach's job to make sure his program is adequately equipped for that effort. There's an old-fashioned term for failing in this regard. It's called "losing your team." Has Weber lost his?
We'll find out the rest of the way. No, it isn't the Big Ten contender we thought it could be; the Illini don't have the interior strength they need to compete with big, athletic frontcourts, and no level of emotional commitment is going to change that. (Illinois also continues to be a victim of poor shot selection; based on its percentages, it would behoove this team to take a few more 3s, which is something we've been saying since the loss to UIC.)
Still, this team is -- or at least should be -- too talented to keep this up. Can Weber wrest control of his squad back from the nefarious outside influences in time for a late-season push? Or is it already too late? If so, how much blame will he face for this season's disappointments? How restless will the natives -- who have vacillated on Weber throughout his up-and-down tenure at Illinois -- become then?
Illinois might not be the most entertaining bunch to watch this season, but you can't fault it for lacking intrigue. This remains a fascinating team. And not always for the right reasons.