Growth starting to show as UIC wins 2nd of last 3 games

UIC has a 2-10 record in the Horizon League, but coach Steve McClain is focused on his team’s 2-1 record during the second half of the 18-game slate.

“I’ve chosen to look at it that way because I know where we’re at in this process,” McClain said Thursday after UIC upset second-place Wright State, 64-59. “One thing I’ve tried to keep this group of young men focused on is that we’re gonna get better.”

The process McClain often talks about is twofold. First, McClain is in his inaugural year at UIC and trying to change the culture of a program that has not had a winning record in the Horizon League since the 2003-04 season. Second, he is trying to accomplish that while relying on freshmen and sophomores as his best players.

Photo: Jesse Kramer / thecatchandshoot.com
Freshman Dikembe Dixson nearly earned a triple-double the wrong way against Wright State with nine turnovers to go along with 26 points an 11 rebounds. Coach Steve McClain says that is part of the learning process. (Photo: Jesse Kramer / thecatchandshoot.com)

After mixing and matching early in the season, McClain has settled on a starting lineup that features sophomore Lance Whitaker as the point guard, freshman wing Dikembe Dixson as the primary scorer, sophomore center Tai Odiase as the main post anchor and freshman guard Michael Kolawole as an additional perimeter scorer.

The only upperclassman in the starting five is 6-foot-6 junior Najeal Young, and even he is a newcomer to Division I as a junior college transfer.

The Flames are 2-4 with this starting lineup with the two victories coming in the last three games. Two losses came in overtime to Northern Kentucky and by four points to Youngstown State. The other two defeats came to first-place Valparaiso and Wright State in the first meeting Jan. 24.

UIC believes knocking off a hot team such as Wright State in Thursday’s rematch could become a building block.

“We know we’re a good team, even though are record doesn’t really say so right now,” Odiase said. “It gives us confidence that we’re just getting better every day.”

Part of the team’s growth has been a matter of improving skills and gaining experience, as has been the case with Dixson.

Although Dixson had nine turnovers, he also tied his career-high of four assists and posted his best shooting performance of the Horizon League season at 9-of-16 (56.3 percent).

“Some of the turnovers, he just has to see it. He hasn’t experienced it,” McClain said. “When he really can see it, then we’re gonna be dangerous because he’ll find those open guys. He had some turnovers, but he made some great passes to the bigs early. I live with him. He’ll get better at that.”

The other part of UIC’s growth has been the team’s attitude and demeanor.

“We definitely tasted winning,” Whitaker said. “It’s been new for us. Now that we’ve tasted it we really want more. So we really lock in in practice, we work hard. We’re starting to learn what it takes to win when it comes down to the wire at the end of these close games.”

With the recent flurry, the Flames have climbed out of the Horizon League’s cellar. UIC is currently tied with Cleveland State for ninth place in the 10-team league. If the season ended today, the Flames would win the tiebreaker and get the No. 9 seed in the conference tournament. A few weeks ago, the Flames playing as the No. 10 seed was nearly a certainty.

With upcoming games against Northern Kentucky, Youngstown State and Detroit — the three teams that sit in the three spots ahead of UIC — the Flames have an opportunity to make up some more ground.

“I just enjoy watching this group because the pieces are starting to come together,” McClain said. “It’s a long season. Our chance to play beyond [the regular season] is completely still on us. And that’s how we’re going to keep approaching every day.”

Author: Jesse Kramer

Jesse Kramer is the founder of The Catch and Shoot. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. He has had work featured on SI.com, College Insider, The Comeback/Awful Announcing, and 247Sports.

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