Although Northwestern and DePaul are bigger brand names, UIC has actually been the most successful team from the Chicago area in recent memory. The Flames have been to the NCAA tournament twice since 2002, received a NIT bid in 2003, and advanced to the second round of the Collegeinsider.com Tournament (CIT) last season. The Flames have also ganged up on Northwestern, their suburban foe, with four straight wins against the Big Ten program.
On Wednesday night, they will try to defeat the Wildcats for a fifth straight time.
Both teams enter coming off weekend losses.
UIC (1-2) was run out of its own gym by Eastern Illinois on Saturday, 86-66.
Northwestern (1-2) fell short of a comeback victory at home against Illinois State, 68-64, on Sunday night. It was the Wildcats second straight loss, as they also lost at Stanford on Thursday night, 71-58.
The Wildcats are still adjusting to life under first-year head coach Chris Collins. They have been solid defensively, ranking No. 80 in defensive efficiency, but they have also struggled scoring the basketball.
Redshirt senior Drew Crawford and junior JerShon Cobb have been Northwestern’s only two consistent, reliable options on offense.
Crawford, who missed nearly all of last season with an injury, has his health back at 100%, and through three games he is averaging 17.7 points and eight rebounds while shooting 46.5% from the field and 47.1% on treys.
Cobb, who also sat out last season due to a suspension, is averaging 15.7 points, four assists, and only 1.3 turnovers. He is also shooting 45.5% from beyond the arc and has made 14 of his last 18 free throws.
Guards Drew Sobolewski, the Wildcats’ top returning scorer from last season, and Tre Demps have struggled to be efficient pieces on this team.
Sobolewski, a junior who is now starting at point guard for the second straight year, is averaging only 6.7 points and three assists per game. He has been incompetent running the offense with more turnovers than assists, and he is shooting 33.3% on field goals and 30% on three-pointers. Last season, he showed some promise with 9.8 points and 1.5 three-pointers per game, and 127 assists to only 60 turnovers.
Demps, a redshirt sophomore, was often a foolish offensive player with poor shot selection as a freshman, and he has not improved in that regard. If anything, he declined.
This season, he is shooting 32% from the field, although he had a respectable performance against Illinois State with 12 points on 4-of-8 shooting.
The biggest positive from his display on Sunday was his leadership, as he barked to his teammates, “This game’s not over,” during Northwestern’s last rally in the final minute.
In the frontcourt, Northwestern has had very little going. For much of the second half against Illinois State, Collins used a five-guard lineup, and the Wildcats were much more productive with this look.
Centers Alex Olah and Nikola Cerina were non-factors against Illinois State and Stanford, and freshman forward Nathan Taphorn is not yet ready to be a big-time player for this team.
Taphorn had a good showing against Eastern Illinois with five points and four rebounds, and against Stanford he had two assists and two steals but was held scoreless. Against the Redbirds, he played only six minutes and his only box score contributions were a missed three-pointer, a missed free-throw, two turnovers, and a foul.
Sanjay Lumpkin, a 6’6″ wing, has been Northwestern’s most productive member of the frontcourt with 4.7 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. Lumpkin has also been a lockdown defender.
UIC is also struggling, but the Flames should give Northwestern a good matchup.
Junior guard Marc Brown is having a breakout season with 21.7 points per game after averaging only 5.7 points last year. Brown has been dominant at 62.2% from the field and 4-of-9 from beyond the arc.
Purdue transfer Kelsey Barlow has made a huge, immediate impact starting in the Flames’ backcourt. Through three games, he is averaging 11.3 points, 6.3 assists, and two steals. At 6’5″, he will have a size advantage against Sobolewski and Demps, who generously measure at 6’1″ and 6’2″ respectively. With his Big Ten experience, Barlow should not have any worries about facing the Wildcats.
Up front, the Flames are expecting big things from sophomore Jake Wiegand this season. Wiegand is averaging only 5.7 points so far, but he has played only 16 minutes per game due to foul trouble.
UIC also sports stretch-four Hayden Humes, a senior who averaged 10.3 points last season and was the team’s top returning scorer. Humes’ offensive production has dipped in the early going, as he has recorded only seven points and 3.7 rebounds per game while shooting 45% from the field and 37.5% on three-pointers.
Wednesday will be a breakout opportunity for him, as Northwestern will struggle to find a defensive matchup for him. Olah and Cerina are not quick enough to defend on the perimeter, and if the Wildcats use their five-guard lineup he will have a size advantage of at least a couple of inches.
Taphorn would be the best defensive matchup, but Humes will have the benefit of experience if matched up against the frosh.
The contest will tip off at 7 p.m. CT at the UIC Pavilion.
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