CHICAGO — UIC held on Saturday to defeat Lake Forest 73-60 in a preseason exhibition. The Flames open the regular season Friday against San Francisco, and here is what we learned about first-year coach Steve McClain‘s team:
—The 30-second shot clock will not affect UIC in the least. The Flames never took more than a few seconds getting the ball into the frontcourt, and they started looking to score right away.
The exhibition totaled 77 possessions. The Flames highest possession total in a regulation game last season was 71 possessions and averaged a hair of more than 65 possessions per game.
The style of play was a refresher after the old regime’s offense that consisted mainly of swinging the ball around the arc like a hot potato.
“It’s hard to play like that, but at the same time it makes you feel really good,” senior point guard Paris Burns said on the new system. “This year it’s all about getting my teammates more involved. The young guys run the floor very well, so this year my focus is just to get the ball up the court, get the offense going, get us into our sets and just let everything flow from there.”
Exhibition games are often played at a faster tempo, but McClain has been adamant about playing this way. (And his history as a coach at Wyoming and Indiana prove it’s not just talk.)
—Jump on the Dikembe Dixson bandwagon now. There aren’t going to be many, if any, freshman in the Horizon League better than Dixson, and he will have a unique opportunity as an immediate starter.
What stood out was not Dixson’s stats but his skillset. He put up okay numbers, scored 12 points on 5-of-14 shooting. He also had six rebounds, two assists and two turnovers.
However, the 6-foot-7 forward showed his ability to play offense on the wing, in the high post and in the low post. He also flashed good ballhandling skills for someone his size. Lastly, his long arms combined with his athleticism give him an opportunity to become a great defender.
—The freshmen are good, but they are still freshmen. Not every moment of the exhibition was positive.
Dixson and guard Dominique Matthews, who also started, combined for 3-of-18 shooting in the first half.And while forward Hassan Thomas had a nice block in the first half, he also recorded three fouls in just 10 minutes.
To be fair, Matthews picked up his game in the second half and finished with a game-high 17 points on respectable 6-of-16 shooting. The 6-foot-2 guard also had six rebounds.
McClain gave his youngsters lots of freedom and said that freedom will carry over into the regular season.
“That’s where I think we’ve still got to grow, is learning where our shots come from and how they come,” McClain said. “(Dixson and Matthews) are scorers, so they’re always going to have a scorer’s mentality which is fine. I want them to. And they’re always going to maybe have one or two shots where people go, ‘Woah, that might’ve been a tough one.’ But, they can make them. And I’ve always believed with scorers, you better give them the confidence that they can make them.”
Another promising freshman, 6-foot-9 forward Julian Torres missed the exhibition with an upper-body injury. McClain expects him to be ready for the season opener Friday against San Francisco.
—If healthy, Tai Odiase will become one of the Horizon League’s top big men this season. The 6-foot-9 forward went up against a lineup with no one bigger than 6-foot-7, but regardless a line of 16 points, 11 rebounds and seven blocks is impressive.
“We’ve got to get him more touches, we’ve got to find him more in the post,” McClain said.
Odiase missed six games due to injury last season — not a huge amount, but also not a negligible number.
The Horizon League is guard-oriented with only a small handful of truly solid bigs. Expect Odiase to join that group this year.
—UIC’s rotation remains up in the air. McClain played 12 guys in the exhibition, and all but freshman guard Michael Kolawole provided quality production.
McClain still does not know how deep his rotation will go, nor does he necessarily feel he needs to.
“I don’t ever go into a game saying I want to play a guy this many minutes,” McClain said. “The game says how many guys you can play.”