CHICAGO — Everyone in the Horizon League knows about UIC center Tai Odiase, the nation’s leading shot blocker. But the Flames have another young center who has recently earned some significant minutes.
Freshman Julian Torres is averaging seven points and five rebounds in his last two games after dropping 10 points and five boards Sunday in a 74-63 loss to Oakland.
The Bolingbrook native had barely seen the floor in Horizon League play between fighting for scarce minutes and struggling with foul trouble when coach Steve McClain gave him opportunities.
But with senior forward Jake Wiegand struggling during the tail end of the season, McClain has placed some more trust in Torres, and the move has paid off.
Torres’ defensive effort Sunday was a major reason why Oakland center Percy Gibson, who averages 11.3 points and shoots 51.5 percent from the field, scored only two points on 1-of-8 shooting. During a two-minute stretch in the second half, Torres forced Gibson into two travels followed by an offensive foul.
On offense, Torres showed his versatility as a scorer. He scored three baskets posting up Gibson in three different ways. The first time he drained a shot over Gibson from the right block. The second time he pulled up for a turnaround baseline jumper. The third time he used a drop step to get to blow by Gibson and get to the rim.
“I’ve said this about our kids, they’ve continued to get better,” McClain said. “You just don’t do it overnight.”
With a 6-foot-9, 240-pound frame, Torres gives UIC a different type of big man. Odiase is also 6-foot-9 but weighs 210 pounds.
“Me and Tai, we go at each other in practice and that’s definitely made me better. And it’s made him better too,” Torres said. “Overall, we’re all working together and improving each other.”
Odiase struggled offensively Sunday with five points on 2-of-11 shooting, but the sophomore has been a handful for opponents all season with 15 double-digit scoring outings and seven games with at least 10 points, six rebounds and six blocks. Now McClain has a secondary option emerging in the post as he tries to build a struggling program into a Horizon League contender.