UIC’s non-conference schedule had plenty of ups and downs.
The Flames had three wins against teams expected to compete for their respective conference titles in San Diego, Southeast Missouri State, and Wagner; but they also had disappointing losses to the likes of Eastern Illinois, Loyola (Chicago), and UC Riverside.
“I think no matter if you go into the season 14-0, I think you go into conference thinking of it as a new season,” head coach Howard Moore said. “It’s a new mindset where everyone is 0-0. You’re always going to have that frame of mind.”
The new start for UIC (5-9) begins on Thursday night at 7:05 p.m. CT when it takes on defending Horizon League champion Valparaiso.
Though the Crusaders graduated all five starters last spring, they were successful in non-conference play with an 8-7 record and a respectable win against Loyola Marymount.
Valparaiso has reloaded with seniors LaVonte Dority, Jordan Coleman, and Bobby Capobianco succeeding in larger roles. Freshman forward Alec Peters has been the key addition for the Crusaders with 14.3 points and 5.3 rebounds per game.
It’s a tough way for UIC to start its “new season” on the road, but Moore is confident that he and his players learned enough lessons during their first 14 games to prepare them adequately.
“I look at it this year as we took our lumps and bruises. We learned the hard way, but we learned,” Moore said. “And I think we’ve gotten better because of the adversity and some of the slips and shortcomings. So we’ve got to make sure we continue to establish what we’ve got to get better at and be honest with ourselves.”
UIC’s defense is still not consistently reliable, but the Flames have made some noticeable improvements on the defensive end. In early season losses, the Flames allowed 1.30 points per possession. Since then, their worst defensive outing is 1.19 points per possession last Saturday against Illinois.
Despite the mediocre defensive effort, UIC held its own against the more talented, more athletic Illini on Saturday. Though the Flames struggled in the second half, they held a 10-point lead at halftime on their Big Ten foe thanks to what Moore called “the best half of basketball we played all year.”
Moore was not quite ready to call it a breakthrough moment though because of the team’s struggles in the second half.
“It was a good first half, but we’ve got to put together two good halves,” he said. “The breakthrough is going to be when we put together two halves like that.”
Moore is still waiting for the night when all of his talent gels for a full, 40 minutes. He hopes that going through a difficult non-conference schedule and finally having a healthy roster will make that more likely to happen in the nearer future.
The Flames were hit with injuries early in the season as junior Jay Parker, a backup point guard, missed seven games in November and early December, and reserve forward Will Simonton has not played since Nov. 20 against Northwestern. Simonton was available for Saturday’s game, but Moore wanted “to get him a few more practices under his belt” before throwing him back into game action.
In regards to scheduling, not only did UIC schedule big-time programs like Illinois and Northwestern, but it played a number of other teams that, though less known, could be playing postseason basketball in March. In addition to San Diego, Southeast Missouri State, and Wagner, the Flames faced Louisiana Tech (the Conference USA favorite), Southern Methodist (expected to compete for a NCAA Tournament bid), and Colorado State (which has been to two straight NCAA Tournaments and could return for another this season).
“We’ve played mostly pretty good basketball against pretty good competition,” Moore said. “I thought we played pretty well against Colorado State. Obviously we came a little short, but there were some good things to take out of that game.”
To get his offense gelling, Moore will look to balance the scoring attack a bit more.
Senior guard Kelsey Barlow has been carrying the team with 16.9 points and 4.6 dimes per game. Not only has he been the team’s only reliable scorer, but a lot of his teammates’ points come with his help, as evidenced by his 33.8% assist rate.
To help to relieve some of the pressure on Barlow, the Flames will need more consistent contributions from senior forward Hayden Humes and junior guard Marc Brown.
Humes, who was the top returning scorer from last year’s team, is averaging only 6.9 points and his field-goal percentage has dropped to 39.3%.
Brown is second on the team in scoring with 12.3 points per game, but there have been many outings where he was a non-factor. Most recently, he struggled on the team’s west-coast trip with seven points per game on 2-of-16 (12.5%) shooting in losses to UC Riverside and Colorado State.
An emerging scoring threat for UIC is freshman Pat Birt, who won Horizon League Freshman of the Week on Monday. The rookie has been moved to the starting lineup, and in his last nine games he is averaging 8.2 points.
“Until he shows otherwise, he’s pretty much established himself as a starter,” Moore said of Birt. “As a freshman, he’s seen a lot of situations now where he understands why I’m harping and yelling at him in practice to do the things that he needs to do because there’s not a lot of room for error on the court. Now he’s getting an understanding of that.”
With Parker healthy, Moore hopes he will take some of the pressure off Barlow in the backcourt. Parker is averaging only 11.6 minutes per game, but Moore expects him to be a larger part of the team’s gameplan for the conference season. He played a career-high 28 minutes against Colorado State on Dec. 23, and he showed his value with four assists.
“It just allows us to give Kelsey some breathers,” Moore said of Parker’s return. “It allows [Kelsey] to get off the ball sometimes.”
Though a backup and not as dominant as Barlow, Moore feels comfortable when he subs in the junior.
“Jay is a kid where when he goes in I know my defense doesn’t go down — in fact it probably goes up,” Moore said. “With Jay, I’m just trying to work him back, slowly but surely. Now that the conference season is here, it’s a matter of him understanding what he needs to do and how he can help us. And I think he does.”
Tonight, UIC’s Horizon League opener against Valparaiso will be televised on ESPN3.
All advanced statistics are courtesy of KenPom.