UIC coach Steve McClain readily admits that last year’s 5-win team didn’t think too highly of its chances last year heading to Detroit for the Horizon League Tournament. What a difference a year and a few more wins can make.
The Flames finished the regular season 14-17 overall and 7-11 in the Horizon League, and that’s enough to have them thinking they could be this year’s Cinderella at Motor City Madness.
“It’s just a whole different mindset,” McClain told The Catch and Shoot. “I like the vibe. You know as a coach if you do this long enough, you can tell by their attitude in practice where they’re at. And this group’s all about, hey let’s go out and get better again. And that’s been fun to coach in this group.”
UIC lost four straight games to end the regular season, but McClain has kept that in perspective. The Flames played four of their last five on the road, and only one of those defeats — the most recent one at Wright State — was a blowout.
It’s a cliche, but in this case it’s true: UIC can beat anybody in the conference on a good day, and lose to anybody on a bad day. McClain even thinks that’s true all around the conference.
“I don’t think anybody is going into the conference tournament overconfident. But yet I don’t think there’s anybody that doesn’t think they can win it,” McClain said.
One of the big challenges for UIC’s opener against Green Bay is the Flames are the youngest team in the Horizon League while the Phoenix are the oldest.
And the difference is vast. UIC is actually the youngest mid-major in all of Division I, and Green Bay is the 10th oldest. The Phoenix also have seven players from last year’s Horizon League Tournament championship team, led by senior guard Charles Cooper (13.6 ppg) and junior guard Khalil Small (10.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg).
McClain said he felt that dynamic played a role in the two regular season meetings, as Green Bay’s veterans made more plays down the stretch than UIC’s freshmen and sophomores to squeak out two wins.
The Flames lost control of the second meeting early in the second half as the Phoenix outscored them 34-15 in the opening 10 minutes. In the first meeting, it was the final 10 minutes when Green Bay outscored UIC by 14 to win 84-80.
Adding another freshman to the mix might not seem like the obvious antidote, but McClain said he hopes that having Boahen back will help if only to add an extra guard to the rotation. Green Bay has the No. 8 adjusted tempo in the nation and pressures the ball plenty, although not as much as last year’s championship team.
Junior forward Tai Odiase and redshirt freshman guard Dominique Matthews kept UIC competitive in both regular season meetings, combining for 30.5 points per game. And because of their experience, he thinks they are the two Flames best equipped to handle Green Bay’s physicality once again.
UIC’s quarterfinal matchup will tip off at 4 p.m. Eastern.