Illinois does not have good memories of UIC.
The last time they met, the Flames, who entered 4-7, upset the No. 12 Fighting Illini by three points. Like their meeting Saturday, that game was played at the United Center.
That was in 2010, but UIC (5-8) will once again be a heavy underdog with Illinois (10-2) knocking on the doorstep of the AP Top 25.
Just like in their last meeting, the Flames chances of an upset are extremely slim. They have lost four of their last five games against Division I teams and have struggled to find a groove all season long.
Meanwhile, Illinois just knocked off nationally ranked and previously unbeaten Missouri, and its only losses are in close games to undefeated Oregon and a tough Georgia Tech team on the road.
The Illini are led by a dynamic backcourt of Rayvonte Rice, Tracy Abrams, and Joseph Bertrand.
Rice, a Drake transfer, has had no problem transferring his offensive game from the mid-major to high-major level. He leads Illinois with 17.4 points per game on 48.7% field-goal shooting, and he figures to be one of the Big Ten’s top scorers.
Abrams along with freshman Jaylon Tate facilitate the offense.
Tate leads the Illini with 3.3 assists in 16.8 minutes per game, and he has an assist-turnover ratio better than 3:1.
Abrams, a junior, gets the starting nod from head coach John Groce, and he is averaging 12.4 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 3.2 assists.
Bertrand averages 10.6 points and 5.3 rebounds, and he leads the team at 53.8% from the field.
Up front, the Illini sport junior Nnanna Egwu and Illinois State transfer Jon Ekey.
Egwu has emerged as one of the better big men in the Big Ten with 8.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks per game so far this year. Despite standing at 6’11”, the Chicago native has had only two games with at least nine rebounds.
Ekey has been a key addition for Illinois, averaging 9.1 points and 6.3 rebounds. The 6’7″ senior plays well on the perimeter, making 2.3 three-pointers per game at a 41.5% clip.
A main reason UIC has struggled in its last two games is a drop off in the play of senior guard Kelsey Barlow. Barlow, who won Horizon League Player of the Week after the Flames’ win against Southeast Missouri State on Dec. 14, has had offensive ratings of 99 and 85 in the last two games.
Barlow has been the driving force in UIC’s victories, and the Flames need him badly against a more talented Illinois team.
The good news for the Flames is that senior forward Hayden Humes, the top returning scorer from last year’s team, has been improving statistically. Humes, who averaged 10.3 points and 5.2 rebounds last season, is only averaging 7.2 points and 3.5 rebounds as a senior.
But in his last five games, Humes is averaging 10.2 points and five rebounds while shooting 40% on three-pointers, and his lowest offensive rating in that stretch is 120.
Senior forward Jordan Harks has also been coming on strong for the Flames. In his last four games, he has recorded 11.3 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 1.5 steals per contest.
UIC will need strong performances from both of its veteran big men on Saturday.
Opening tip at the United Center is slated for 1 p.m. CT, and the game will be televised on Big Ten Network.
All advanced statistics are courtesy of KenPom.