CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) Demetri McCamey is considered one of the best college basketball players in the country.

The Illinois senior point guard is a finalist for the Wooden Award. He had more than 250 assists last year and led the Illini with 15.1 points a game.

But, by his own admission, he and his teammates have a lot to prove. As he puts it, the Illini have a lot to make up for.

“My freshman year we didn’t make the (NCAA) Tournament. Sophomore year ended with a disappointing loss in the first round to Western Kentucky. And last year, NIT,” he told reporters Tuesday. “So there’s a big question mark with my senior year. I’ve got a chance to put a stamp on it now and win a championship, and that way make up for my last three years.”

Illinois will start this season, like two of the previous three after McCamey came here from Chicago, with talent and potential. Like last year, they could be in the Top 25 when they open the season.

But if the Illini start among the elite, can they stay there?

Coach Bruce Weber said that will be to a large degree up to McCamey and fellow seniors Mike Davis, a forward, and 7-foot center Mike Tisdale. They’re among five starters back from last season’s 21-15 team that lost in the NIT semifinals to Dayton.

This year, they’ll have more help from both experienced sophomore guard D.J. Richardson, who started all but one game last season, and from three talented freshman: forward Jereme Richmond, who was last year’s Mr. Basketball in Illinois, as well as center Meyers Leonard and guard Crandall Head.

“Now we have some other people who can do some things,” Weber said, meaning McCamey won’t have to take as many of the big shots or make as many of the big plays in close games.

Head has strong Illini ties – he’s the brother of former Illini great Luther Head – but the 6-foot-8 Richmond is probably the freshman people will see the most. Despite his size, he can play guard and is among the candidates to back up McCamey at the point.

“When you first see him, you’re going to say `Whoa!'” said McCamey, who averaged 35 minutes per game last season. “Everybody is just going to say, `Whoa, where did this kid come from?'”

Richmond committed to Illinois when he was 14, but he’s taken a winding path since then. He moved from North Shore Country Day School in suburban Chicago after his freshman year to Waukegan High School, where he was kicked off the team as a sophomore before returning.

He said Tuesday that he’s changed a lot during those years, adding almost 30 pounds to his frame and growing up a good deal.

“Four years is a long time to wait for anything,” he said.

For Weber, the wait to see how good his team can be won’t be long.

He points to the Coaches Vs. Cancer Classic, which opens with Illinois’ season opener on Nov. 8 against California-Irvine and will pit the Illini against Texas and either Maryland or Pittsburgh in later games.

“If we can compete with those teams and be successful, we’re going to live up to some of the expectations of being a top 20 team,” he said.

But Weber’s expectations – after the seasons of disappointment that haunt McCamey – don’t stop there.

“Now, to be a special team, we have to guard, we have to win close games,” he said. “If those things happen, we have a chance to be very, very good. There’s no doubt.”

By David Mercer, Associated Press Writer

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