College basketball is a game of constant adjustment. Adjusting to new teammates. Adjusting to new opponents. And in Northwestern's case, adjusting to an entire new scheme and adjusting to a new leader.
But adjustment is nothing new to Tre Demps.
Demps adjusted to new surroundings in high school, when his family moved from the Bay Area to San Antonio, Texas. And he did it again after his first two years at San Antonio's Reagan High School. Out was Coach Littleton and in was Coach John Hirst, someone Demps credits with preparing him for the grinds of college basketball.
"Coach Hirst ran his team so much like a college program," he recalled. "He did a tremendous job of getting me ready to play in college."
When he arrived on campus, Demps was moved from point guard, the position he played and dominated from in high school ("I took most of the shots"), to shooting guard. And he, like so many college freshmen, had to leave his ego at the door-- no longer was he the 'man.' He was one of twelve, fighting tooth and nail for playing time.
"It was hard, the adjustment," Demps says. "Everyone tells you it's going to be hard, but it's not until you really experience not being 'the guy' that it really hits you. It takes humility, you have to look yourself in the mirror and re-evaluate how you're going to play and approach basketball as a whole. It definitely made me a better, stronger person."
Demps' flexibility and willingness to accept the situation resulted in him playing nearly 19 minutes a game as a redshirt freshman. While he often struggled from the field, Demps showed flashes of brilliance, including 16 and 14-point performances against Ohio State and saw his playing time — and production — pick up as the season wore on.
Then March 16, 2013 happened. Bill Carmody, the coach who recruited Demps, was fired. Now, Demps would have to make perhaps the biggest adjustment of his young basketball life. Out was Carmody, in was Chris Collins- Coach K's right-hand man, son of NBA legend Doug Collins, a member of Team USA's coaching staff. It truly was a new (NU) era, and Demps approached it with the type of vigor you'd expect from someone who's been adapting his entire life. Collins saw a fire in Demps that he loved, and knew that he'd be a key contributor to his teams right away.
"From day one, I bought in to what Coach Collins was preaching," he remembers. "He told me right away that he expected me to be a guy to compete for a lot of playing time, to be a main player."
It would have been understandable for some players to approach the change with a fear that they'll lose their playing time, to seek a transfer. This guy was coming from Duke, one of the premiere programs in the country, and big changes were expected from day one.
"I looked at is as a fresh chance, another opportunity," he said. "I think they did a great job of coaching me, and I embraced the thing that they told me. I think it worked out."
Demps loves the big shot, and was the first guy NU turned to when they needed a clutch bucket. That's something he learned not in practice, not in high school, but on the playground with his father.
"Growing up, my dad and I would always play one on one. At the end of the games, that's really what basketball is- you making a play. You're not going to get back door cuts, easy buckets. It's going to get a lot tougher. I'm just comfortable in that moment, it's something my dad and I worked on for years."
It should come as no surprise, then, that Demps' NBA role model is Portland's Damian Lillard. Lillard's poise at the end of games is inspiring, but his efficiency is something that Demps hopes to incorporate into his game this year.
"I'm trying to be a more efficient player, so I've studied him a lot," he said. "Just trying to get to my spots quicker, create more space for my teammates."
While Demps and the rest of the players believe Northwestern's trajectory is headed upward, the vast majority of the basketball world disagrees that this will be the year of the turnaround. Despite a solid Big Ten season last year, Northwestern was picked by the Big Ten Media to finish 13th in the conference. Second to last.
Demps looks at the 2013-14 Nebraska Huskers as evidence that this Northwestern team can achieve more than anyone gives them any chance to. The programs are in somewhat similar positions — Tim Miles, like Chris Collins is a young coach who took over the program only recently. While Northwestern doesn't have a brand new stadium like the Huskers' Pinnacle Bank Arena, a new floor and new video boards have Welsh-Ryan feeling and looking like an entirely different place.
"I think there's no reason we can't do what Nebraska did last year," Demps says. "They were picked last or second to last or something. They just bought into what their coach said and that's what we're trying to do this year. We have a lot of great pieces- guys who can shoot the ball, we have a lot of athleticism, a different type of athleticism that we haven't had in a while. I think we can surprise a lot of people because no one's going to give us a chance in any game."
To surprise like that is going to take some adjustments, particularly on offense. The good news is that Demps is no stranger to that feeling.