TULSA, Okla. — With some time to kill before Thursday’s practice, Illinois star Demetri McCamey spent the hours like most basketball fans. He got caught up in the thrills of the NCAA Tournament.
"I’ve been watching games on TV all day," he said, "and there have been major upsets and things like that."
McCamey’s mission is to lead his Fighting Illini to a minor upset today.
Eighth-seeded UNLV (24-8) opens against No. 9 seed Illinois (19-13) in the Southwest Region at 6:20 p.m. at the BOK Center, and the Mountain West Conference team is a slight favorite over a Big Ten opponent.
"I think right now is a big platform for us to try to make a national statement," Rebels sophomore guard Anthony Marshall said.
Toppling the Illini, who have a definite size advantage with 7-foot-1-inch Mike Tisdale and 6-9 forwards Mike Davis and Bill Cole, will be no small task for UNLV. But the team getting the better perimeter play will probably win the game.
That makes McCamey, a 6-3 senior point guard and third-team All-Big Ten pick, the key to the Illini’s success or lack of it, and the Rebels surely know it.
"McCamey’s such a versatile guy and can do so many different things for their team, so there’s a lot of reason for worry," UNLV coach Lon Kruger said.
As good as McCamey can be — he had 17 points and eight assists in a victory over North Carolina in November — he’s also erratic. Illinois’ results have been inconsistent, too, as it has not won back-to-back games since early January.
Illini coach Bruce Weber said his team’s "up-and-down season" can point upward again if McCamey makes the right moves against the Rebels’ defensive pressure.
"If the point guard plays well, you’re usually going to play well. That is the key for us," Weber said. "He’s our senior, and he’s done some unbelievable things. We need him to play well.
"He’s got to take care of the ball. He’s got to make good decisions."
The Illini players talked at length about UNLV’s full-court pressure and trapping, and Kruger said he plans to "throw it out there and see if it works."
McCamey averages 14.8 points and 6.1 assists per game and shoots 45.5 percent from 3-point range. Illinois is 14-0 when he has seven or more assists.
"With any team, just being a coach on the floor, the point guard to lead the troops, if I have a bad game, I think we’re all going to struggle," McCamey said. "The UNLV guards are going to attack, keep pressure on me, rotate players and trap me to try to get the ball out of my hands.
"They’re going to pressure me the whole game. So I’ve got to make the right play at the right time and don’t lose my composure."
But when he’s off, as he said, the team is often lost. McCamey shot 1-for-10 in an 81-70 home loss to Purdue in mid-February. There might be some good news in that for the Rebels.
Three Illinois players were asked which Big Ten team most resembles UNLV, and all three said the Boilermakers.
"We kind of compare them a little bit to Purdue in terms of their pressure and the way they get after you. They’re going to run two guys to Demetri; they’re going to guard him 94 feet up the floor," Davis said. "All five guys can run the floor and score, so it kind of reminds us of playing Purdue."
McCamey has scored in double figures in seven consecutive games, but he was held to 10 in a Big Ten tournament loss to Michigan last week.
"McCamey is their leader, and we have to focus on stopping him early and not let him get his confidence up," Rebels junior forward Chace Stanback said. "It’s going to be a tough battle from beginning to end."
The challenge facing Kruger is to create matchup edges by using the quickness and dribble-drive ability of his guards. Kruger, who coached the Fighting Illini from 1996 to 2000, was a focal point of the Illinois media Thursday.
"Coach Kruger has been around the basketball world for a long time. He knows a lot about it," Marshall said. "He’s kind of a wizard when it comes to basketball."
McCamey can exhibit wizardry with ball in his hands. UNLV’s goal is to take him out of the game as much as possible.
"If we lose, we go home," McCamey said. "The NCAA Tournament is something we didn’t make last year. So if you get this opportunity, you want to make the best of it."
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907.UNLV VS. ILLINOIS
WHEN: 6:20 p.m. today
WHERE: BOK Center, Tulsa, Okla.
TV/RADIO: TBS (7), KWWN (1100 AM, 98.9 FM)
LINE: UNLV -2; total 132½