All in all, UIC has a lot of positives to take away from the NIU Thanksgiving Classic. Although the Flames went 1-2, they now have two wins against Division I teams, which they didn’t accomplish until February last year, and a win away from home, which they had not done since Howard Moore was the head coach in the 2014-15 season.
After falling to Elon in the first game of the round robin, UIC responded with its strongest performance of the year against Cal Poly in an 84-71 victory, the Flames’ largest winning margin under second-year coach Steve McClain. They followed with a competitive showing Saturday against tournament host Northern Illinois in a 92-81 defeat.
Against NIU, UIC trailed just 55-53 with 15 minutes left. The Flames clung within two possessions into the final six minutes, but guard Aaric Armstead and forward Marin Maric carried the Huskies to a victory.
The biggest takeaway for UIC is that Dikembe Dixson’s improved efficiency appears to be for real and not a fluke. The 6’7″ sophomore averaged 29 points on 57.8% shooting during the tournament. He was also impossible for defenders to contain, shooting 38 free throws over three games and making them at an 81.6% clip.
Through six games this season, Dixson is now averaging 25.2 points (5th in the nation), 7.0 rebounds and 2.0 steals. He is shooting 54.1% from the field, 80% from the foul line (while attempting nearly 11 free throws per game) and 43.8% on 3-pointers. His offensive rating is up to 122 from last year’s 87.3 mark, his effective field goal percentage is up nearly 19 points to 59.6% and his turnover rate is down 2.5 points to 16.8%.
Dixson is no longer just a high-volume scorer. He has become a smarter and more talented player. That and UIC’s new talent are helping the Flames reach new heights for the Steve McClain era early in the season, although there’s plenty of room for growth.
While Dixson is carrying the biggest load at the foul line, the Flames have been great across the board getting to the stripe. They are currently third in the nation in free throw rate, a measure of free throws attempted per field goals attempted. They are also shooting 72.6% at the line, which is just outside the top 100 and an increase of nearly 11 points from last year’s 61.9% mark that ranked 7th-worst in the nation. Freshman guards Marcus Ottey, Tarkus Ferguson and Godwin Boahen have all been a big part of this improvement.
A big question moving forward for the Flames will be the role of redshirt freshman guard Dominique Matthews. Matthews was supposed to be a sixth-man type who could bring instant offense off the bench. Appearing in five games this season, he is averaging only 5.8 points in 15.8 minutes and shooting 37.5% from the field.
Remember, this is a guy who averaged 9.7 points in non-conference play last year and dominated Big Ten opponent Illinois before missing the rest of the season with a thumb injury. But so far Boahen is looking like a far better sixth man with 8.0 points, 2.7 assists and 1.5 steals per game.
The Flames are favored in their next two games against Chicago State and Eastern Illinois. If they can pull through and get to 5-3, the program will be two games above .500 for the first time since March 2013.