About a year ago – though it feels like longer – Bill Carmody watched over the development of two freshman guards.
Dave Sobolewski and Tre Demps looked ready to make an immediate impact. They had combined for 28 points in an exhibition win against Robert Morris (Ill.) on Nov. 7, 2011. Then, in the regular season opener, Carmody made a gesture of trust.
The coach said after: “I told them both at the end of the game, ‘I don’t feel like coaching the last five minutes, so you guys take over now.’”
Of course, he meant it jokingly. But for a team that needed impact players, then and now, it was all too true. Even with John Shurna and Drew Crawford, the Wildcats needed help from the freshman pair. They sort of expected it.
While Sobolewski flourished, one thing stood in the way of Demps. The San Antonio native injured his shoulder last August and tried to play regardless, but was shut down after four games. In the process, he earned a medical redshirt and a major learning experience. As skilled as Demps is, he came to NU without an understanding of team mentality.
“It was really tough but it was something I needed,” Demps said of his redshirt. “It helped me mature. In high school basketball, it’s not as much about winning. I had to learn that it’s not about yourself.”
The guards’ fortunes, though, continued to follow divergent paths. Sobolewski owns the starting point guard position, and has demonstrated clear improvement early this season. With the starting rotation basically cemented, Demps is still searching for ways to help his team win.
He’s getting there.
Demps said his ideal role involves creating shots and being “all over the place.” Whether fans like it or not, Demps plays with reckless abandon. Contrary to other guards on NU, he has a quick-strike, up-tempo mindset.
The off year managed to teach Demps the value of little things and “small winning plays,” which are perhaps best exemplified by senior Reggie Hearn. The former walk-on is known for his composure, humility, and knack for making key plays. Hearn was not handed a starting role on pure ability. He worked for it.
“I don’t think (Hearn) liked sitting on the bench for two years,” Demps said. “I’m going through the same thing a little bit now.”
Earning the respect of your teammates is certainly part of the battle. And no doubt, Demps has succeeded in that area. At Big Ten Media Day, Alex Marcotullio raved about Demps’ work ethic, calling him one of the hardest workers he had seen. Hearn echoed the statement as if it were a fact.
“Tre is the hardest worker on the team,” Hearn said. “If you were to walk into the gym at any point during the summer – even if it was 3 in the morning – you would have seen him working out.”
The work has yet to translate to game time. In the first seven games, Demps made just eight of 33 field goal attempts, including an 0-for-14 total from behind the arc. He preached the importance of focusing on other areas, but still, the shots have to fall eventually.
It speaks to a greater, recurring problem on Northwestern. Even with new faces, the bench has failed to produce consistently. It is a small sample size and players will settle in. However, for NU to compete for a long-shot NCAA tournament bid, it needs surprise contributions.
Think back to the one significant upset from the Cats last season. Michigan State knew what to expect from Crawford and Shurna. But Davide Curletti sunk the Spartans with 17 points. In this team game, winning requires a solid collective effort. Demps said that while he has stayed confident through the struggles, he knows that improvements need to come. He understands his responsibility.
“You have to work that out in yourself,” Demps said. “If you’re not making shots, you’re not helping the team win.”
His teammates believe that fortune will change. Hearn has watched him create open looks this season. When Demps produces, he has the potential to give this team some hope.
“The (shots) are just not going down for him,” Hearn said. “I’m hoping that he’ll break out of it soon, and I think it will surprise some people.”
Against Illinois State, Demps held the ball on the left baseline with little space to shoot. He up-faked, got the defender off his feet and had space to work.
But after a few steps into the lane, and a defender approaching, he was caught in between. With several options, Demps lofted up a floater that was easily blocked by forward John Wilkins. He created the perfect play. He just could not finish.
Sometimes, it just takes a little while for the results to show. When they do, everything will have paid off.
Follow on Twitter: @NicholasMedline