A 1-3 record was not what UIC hoped for in its season-opening homestand.
With six freshmen and two transfers, the new-look Flames opened with a heartbreaking, two-point loss to Drake. Following a win over NAIA Roosevelt, they were blown out by Eastern Illinois and Northwestern.
On Sunday, the Flames finally hit the road as they travel to Estero, Fla. for the Gulf Coast Showcase. They will open the tournament on Monday against undefeated San Diego and then face either Louisiana Tech or UNC-Greensboro.
The other half of the eight-team bracket features Wagner, Southern Illinois, Saint Bonaventure, and Stetson.
UIC is still looking for its first win against Division I competition this season, and it will have its hands full with San Diego. The Toreros enter the tournament at 5-0 and already have a pair of wins away from home.
“They’re hot right now,” UIC senior guard Kelsey Barlow said. “They don’t know what it feels like to lose nor do they probably want to feel a loss.”
The Toreros are led by junior stud Johnny Dee, one of the top scorers in the West Coast Conference. Dee, a 6-foot guard, is averaging 16.4 points with 54.5 effective-field goal percentage.
Junior Christopher Anderson and sophomore Duda Sanadze are two other impressive guards on San Diego’s roster.
Anderson is currently No. 2 in the WCC with 6.4 assists per game, and he is also averaging 10.6 points and 52.6% shooting and five rebounds, which should not be taken lightly considering his listed height of 5’7″.
Sanadze, who redshirted last season, is off to a hot start in his collegiate career, averaging 11.4 points and shooting better than 91% from the foul line.
6’11” forward Dennis Kramer could spell trouble for the Flames, as no one larger than 6’8″ receives significant minutes. Kramer is averaging 11.6 points and 6.6 rebounds so far.
In addition to tough defense, the Flames will need more big contributions from junior guard Marc Brown, who is averaging 18 points per game. Brown has been one of the biggest breakout players in the nation so far this season after averaging only 5.7 points as a sophomore. However, he is coming off his worst outing of the young season with seven points on 2-of-10 shooting against Northwestern.
“I’m not going to get down on one game,” Brown said. “I wasn’t expecting to score 20 in every game. I’m just going to stay aggressive. People miss shots all the time. It’s about the next play.”
The Flames’ early season struggles are no secret.
They rank No. 329 on KenPom, more than 100 spots below Milwaukee, the next-worst team in the Horizon League. Their three-point defense ranks among the nation’s worst, with opponents having made 53.7% of their treys. In the last three games, opponents are shooting better than 60% from deep.
“We’re built on a team defense,” head coach Howard Moore said. “All of our principles, all of our philosophy defensively is based on everyone working together in a synergy. If that synergy is off by one guy, that breaks up the whole cog. … We’ve got to be more in the ‘help and recovery’ frame of mind as opposed to ‘I can’t let my man score.’”
Moore said the off-court chemistry that the Flames should build during this road trip could lead to improvements in that regard. They will get to spend three days focused solely on basketball and spending time with each other.
“I was working on roommate situations, just to … get guys to open up and talk,” Moore said. “Anything you can do to just get the camaraderie going and these guys to bond well. Defense is about trust. If guys can trust each other and they know they’ve got each other’s backs, the rest will take care of itself.”
Like Moore, Barlow and Brown are also looking forward to the team’s opportunity to rid themselves of the distractions that exist back home and and fixate on basketball.
“Everyone doesn’t have their girlfriends or buddies around,” Barlow said. “You’re only focus is the game and your teammates.”
Although not as poor as its defense, UIC’s offense has also struggled, going through sluggish periods. In their three losses, the Flames are scoring only 0.91 points per possession.
Brown and Barlow, who is averaging 11 points and 5.5 assists, have been UIC’s only two consistent threats offensively.
Though they improved since last season, sophomores Gabe Snider and Jake Wiegand remain role players, and freshman Markese McGuire, though fourth on the team in scoring, is still learning the ropes.
Senior forward Hayden Humes, the team’s top returning scorer, is producing only five points per game, nearly half of his 10.3 points last season.
“I think he is mentally locked in, and I think it is just a matter of executing,” Moore said of Humes. “I thought he got off to probably the best start of everyone last year. … He was knocking down everything and being aggressive and assertive. We’ve just got to get him back to doing that.”
Jordan Harks, a Central Arkansas transfer with one year of eligibility, appears ready to become a prime option for UIC in the post. In the last two games, he is averaging 13 points on 55% shooting and 9.5 rebounds.
But until the mix of newcomers and returning players start to mesh better, the problems will most likely continue.
“We’re just a little stagnant from not knowing what our roles were,” Barlow said. “I think there was a little confusion within the offense and the defense as far as helping your teammate out or moving without the ball.”
In that light, this tournament is coming at a perfect time, as the Flames get the chance to learn about each on and off the court.
“We’ve been working on our chemistry to learn how to play off each other, so this trip to Florida will help with our bonding and learning how each other play,” Brown said.
Other notes on UIC and the Gulf Coast Showcase:
—Kelsey Barlow on being a team leader as an experienced transfer: “I’ve made an effort to be aware of everyone else as far as the younger guys, to make sure they’re on track and to be accountable for their mistakes and congratulate them when they do something good. A lot of [teammates], it’s their first college experience.”
—Marc Brown on Barlow and Jordan Harks, a graduate student, as veterans: “They’re two leaders; we follow them. Them being here to show all the newcomers that we have how to play and what it takes to come out every night and play. It’s big having them on the team.”
—Head coach Howard Moore on the Gulf Coast Showcase as preparation for tournament situations later in the season: “It gets you ready for any true tournament setting. Hopefully we’ll be in the postseason tournament where we have to be in the same mode, where there’s not a lot of time for preparation and getting ready for the next opponent. I think it’s great because we need a little more urgency, so these situations put you in that urgency mode.”
—Moore on Marc Brown’s early season success: “The biggest thing with Mark is that he’s always tried to do the right things, and he’s always tried what the coaching staff ask him to do. So I’m not surprised that he’s had success because his mind is wrapped around the right things. I don’t put a number on his success. … I’m looking more at his approach, at his demeanor, as opposed to the end result.”
—Moore on Barlow’s production through four games: “Kelsey has sat out from playing for a year and a half, so he’s still kind of chipping off the rust. And then he’s playing full-time at [point guard], and he hasn’t done that at all in his college career, so that’s an adjustment as well. But I know like Brown and Humes, if I can get him to focus more on the defensive end, all the other stuff will take care of itself. He’s a better defender than he’s shown.”
—Southern Illinois’ Desmar Jackson enters the tournament as the Missouri Valley Conference’s No. 3 scorer with 22 points per game.
—UNC Greensboro’s Tevon Saddler is one of the top freshmen scorers in the country with 18.5 points per game. Against East Carolina on November 12, Saddler posted 34 points, eight rebounds, and five assists.
*All advanced statistics are courtesy of KenPom.