Horizon League title winners have something in common: they rarely lose to teams in the bottom half of the conference.

While UIC is still a player away — or maybe just a year of experience shy — from truly contending for a conference title, the Flames have taken their first step toward moving up the conference ladder by sweeping a three-game stretch against Milwaukee, Youngstown State and Cleveland State, the three teams currently at the bottom of the Horizon League with five losses each.

The Flames edged Cleveland State and Youngstown State in Ohio, their longest road trip in the league, and then returned home Tuesday to blow past Milwaukee 71-57, improving to 4-2 for their best conference start since the 2006-07 season.

“I think more than anything,” coach Steve McClain said Tuesday, “not only did we go win two on the road, we got back at 3 a.m. [Sunday morning] and that’s one of the hardest road trips you have. We had to make a quick turnaround.”

Combine the last three wins with a 14-point victory against 7th place Detroit earlier this month, and UIC has cleaned up against the bottom half of the conference.

While the Flames are tied for third place a third of the way through the season, they have played the weakest conference schedule to date, according to Kenpom. That’s one sign their current standing could be inflated.

But they’ve beaten all the teams worse than team, with two home wins coming easily. Meanwhile, their have lost to only Valparaiso and Oakland, the two title favorites. They even had a shot to beat Oakland at the buzzer but junior forward Tai Odiase’s contested layup misfired.

The seven seasons prior to this one, UIC had a 23.5 winning percentage in Horizon League games. Weak schedule or not, UIC is one shot away from being tied for first and already has more Horizon League wins this year than it had total Division I wins all of last season.

“The guys we have, the system we have, I feel like we have a way deeper team than the past couple of years,” Odiase said after the Milwaukee win. “Everybody can really play as many amount of minutes as the starters. I just feel like our bench is way deeper.”

The bench has been essential with leading scorer Dikembe Dixson out for the season and a handful of other smaller injuries threatening their depth.

Heck, they even had a student manager suit up for the Milwaukee game just in case.

With four freshmen averaging at least 7 points per game, the Flames avoided a seemingly inevitable collapse when Dixson tore his ACL on Dec. 14 in a win over DePaul.

“We had guys who needed to grow up real fast,” Odiase said. “My freshman year, there were a couple of injuries and I had to start. You just have to learn how to grow up real fast, and I think we did that. …  I’m not surprised that we’re where we’re at now. We just need to keep getting better and anything can happen.”

What will define UIC’s season, as well as the manner in which to approach the 2017-18 campaign, will be how the team performs against the league’s other middle-of-the-pack teams. They’ve beaten up the worst of the worst and fallen to the best of the best, and barring a big upset they won’t beat one of the teams this year.

The Flames have turned the first corner by beating the cellar dwellers. The next step is finding ways to beat teams on your level. After traveling to Valparaiso on Sunday, UIC will get their chance with a three-game stretch against Northern Kentucky, Wright State and Green Bay.

Lead photo: Jesse Kramer / thecatchandshoot.com

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