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Q&A: Flames head coach Jimmy Collins

Itís been seven years since Jimmy Collins became head coach of the UIC Flames. He has had varying degrees of success with the program with most of the success coming in the past two seasons, when the Flames put together back-to-back 20-win seasons and back-to-back national postseason appearances. In this exclusive interview with Whoosh!Net, the 56-year old Collins, gives his grade on the past season, what to look for next year, which players will surprise Flamesí fans, and whether UIC can become a ďnameĒ basketball school. Also, the coach talks about Bruce Pearl, Marcetteaus McGee, Shaquille OíNeal and recruiting. The interview was conducted at the Flames Athletic Center on Monday, May 19, 2003.

Whoosh!: Give me your grade on this past season? Why?

Jimmy Collins: I think we were a high C. I think that we had some players, who at times lapsed defensively. Good defensive players. I think about Cedrick [Banks] being one of our better defensive players. He didnít play defense this year like Cedrick Banks can play defense. I also think that we missed a lot of opportunites, because of lack of mental concentration and mental toughness. We should have been blowing teams out and/or winning games. We would not shoot well from the free-throw line, or we would get some turnovers that we didnít normally get. I think those things, coupled with the fact that there were times where didnít go to the glass as hard as we could have, given the athletes that we have. Even though we were 21-9, I still we think we should have been considerably better.

W: Have youíve ever had so much talent together on one team before? Compare this past yearís team with the team in 1997-98 that had Mark Miller, Bryant Lowe and Anthony Coomes?

JC: I think that obviously those teams back then were older kids. They were junior college transplants, for the most part. They were mature. They fought for 40 minutes. They fought for the entire time they were out there, because they knew that our bench was short, to say the least. I think talent-wise [now], on paper, weíve got a lot of guys that can play basketball. The key for us is how well those guys are going to play together. How well Martell Bailey is going to lead them. And Cedrick Banks. Last year on our team, Jonathan Schneiderman provided us with some really good leadership, on and off the court. Martellís got to step his role up. Cedrickís got to step his role up. If those guys will step up and our talent will begin to show itself, this will be best and most talented team Iíve had since [í97-Ď98].

W: Do you think the main difference is killer instinct? Did the team in í97-í98 have more of that?

JC: I think the older you get, the more you understand the urgency of certain things, like defense and rebounding the ball and taking good shots. This team now is a junior-laden team. These guys have been through the wars some. You make a good point, [the í97-98í] guys were more mature; they were tougher mentally than our sophomores last year. I think this year weíre going to rise and our leaders are going to be tougher mentally and physically, and thatís going to help us be a better team.

W: Are you disappointed that guys didnít win 24, maybe 25 games?

JC: Iím always disappointed when we lose a game like we did at Evansville. Then we lost at Western Michigan, and then we lost at Indiana State. I know we should have won those three games at least. Itís disappointing, but then you flip that coin over and say ďWell, we won 21 games.Ē There were some games that we won over the course of the year that we could have possibly lost. And thatís a sign of a team thatís pretty good, but theyíre young. You lose some games that we shouldnít have lost and win some games that probably should have lost. I was very pleased with the final outcome of the seasonís record.

W: You have helped bring superstars to UIC. Not only Cedrick Banks, but a guy by the name of Martell Bailey. Whatís it like to have a point guard that is not only led the league in assists or ranked in the top 10 nationally in assists, but the national assists champion?

JC: Itís a pleasure. Itís just a flat-out pleasure to have someone of Martellís caliber. He is a vanishing breedósomeone who will bring to table the unselfish nature he possesses. He gets such a big thrill out of getting an assist. He gets such a big thrill out of taking a charge; such a big thrill out of getting an offensive rebound. Those are the things that most kids donít want to do. So when you have a young man, who not only leads the conference, but practically leads the world in assistsóitís very disappointing to me that Martell Baileyís name is not more emphasized nationally, regardless of where heís playing and who he plays against. He still averaged eight assists a game. Heís the one that drives our engine.

W: Who is the player that improved the most?

JC: I think Armond Williams is the player that improved the most. At the end of the year, he kind of fizzled out. I think what happened was: heís playing power forward at 6-5 and 215 pounds and it kind wore him down and all the pounding he did. Armond improved greatly offensively, and Iím looking forward to him taking a big jump this year too. Armond certainly needs to be a player that can pop out and get away from the paint and shoot some shots. Heís quick enough to go around people for dunks and/or layups. The best part about him is that heís a hard worker. Heís out there working his tail off every day.

W: Did you ever imagine [Armond] would mature and improve his game so quickly?

JC: Yes, I did. When I recruited Armond, very few people were after him, because they didnít get an opportunity to watch him in practice (at Austin High School). I went over and watch him practice and Coach [Frank] Lollino (now at Lane Tech) kept telling me, Ďyou need to look at him from practice to practice, and you can assess for yourself the jumps heís taken.í And I did that. I watched him practice. I watched his demeanor. I watch how he intertwined, not only with his players, but with his coach. So I did think he was the type of guy that would make jumps. The only thing that troubled me a little bit about him was that I didnít know how serious he was about his academics. But heís shown, not only in freshman year, coming in and sitting out, but this year as well, that heís focused on his academics. When you find a young man that is focused like Armond, heís just going to get better and better.

W: Who is one player on this team that can take the step forward like Armond did this year?

JC: We certainly hoping that all of the players take another step, but Elliott Poole is a guy that is going to have to come in and prove that heís worthy of all the accolades that he got in high school. Mike Smith is another guy that Iím looking at to make some big jumps. He showed at the latter part of last season that he can play. Heís smart, but he has to get a little stronger. Between those two guys, Iím looking for them to make the most strides.

W: Now on to next year. I realize itís early, but Iím sure that you and the coaching staff are beginning to plot things out. Where can you see this team finishing? Is there a magic aura with this team?

JC: Well, I donít believe in magic. I believe in hard work (laughs). I think that if this team does the things that we set aside for them to do this summer, such as conditioning, playing in good summer leagues, taking care of business the way theyíre supposed to. I think we can finish very, very high in our conference. I think we can be competitive against the Iowas. We play Xavier [possibly at the BCA Classic]. We play Northwestern again. It think itís going to depend on how well they follow the plans weíve laid out for them.

W: Again itís early, but what have you heard about from some of the other Horizon League teams?

JC: Wisconsin-Milwaukee, even though they lost a lot of players, theyíre still going to be very good. Theyíve got a lot of players that were redshirted. They had a good recruiting year; theyíre going to be very competitive. Detroit: Never ever underestimate Perry Watson with what he does with those kids up there in the Motor City. Heís going to have a very good basketball team. Butler seems to have the same personnel every year; theyíre going to be good. Green Bayís going to be good this year. The guy that I think will really, really improveónot a lot of people talk about himóis Jon [Robic] out there at Youngstown. Those guys are going to be good. Theyíve got everybody back. They had a very good recruiting year. They were young in spots and sometimes they played young. We had a very, very tough time with them at their place. For a half, they played well here [at the Pavilion]. From top to bottom, this league is probably going to be as tough, if not tougher, than they were last year.

W: Ced Banks is obviously going to be a factor; what can he do to become the best player in the Horizon League?

JC: Cedís got to get stronger. He also has to mix his game up. The first year Ced played, he penetrated and went to the free-throw line quite a bit. Last year, he didnít go as much as the previous year, because he became a jump shooter. He wanted to shoot threes. For whatever reason that appealed to him, he worked hard on it, and he got better at it, but if you look at the stats, Cedrick was a notch lower than he was the previous year. Heís going to have to develop his intermediate game. He has to start penetrating more; heíd going to have to know when to pull up; heís needs to develop his ball-handling more, so he can make those passes, because people are going to double-team him. People understand that Cedrick is a tremendous ballplayer.

W: You lose Kickert and Schneiderman, arguably your toughest post player and best three-point shooter. Who can step in and take those roles?

JC: Iím hoping Aaron Carr steps up. Aaron Carr is a very good shooter. Heís a senior now; heís been here three years. His shot selection is going to play a big part as to how well he shoots the basketball. Aaronís going to step in and do a great job for us. Kyle Kickert is a big loss for us, as far as toughness inside. But we have Elliott Poole. At the end of the year, Joe Scott was coming along. Jabari Harris is going to be a senior. Armond Williams is going to be back. Weíve got Josip Petrusic, who I think is going to come in and do a really good job. Heís one of the hardest workers Iíve ever been around. Heís about 6-11. Then weíve got Jovan Stefanov; heís 6-9, he can play inside, he can play outside. By committee, weíll have to make up for the loss of those two guys, but weíve got some players, and I shouldnít forget Justin Bowen. Heís just a world-class athlete. He can almost jump up and sit on the rim. He goes to the basket as well as anyone Iíve ever seen.

W: That center spot is going to be pretty interesting. Based on last yearís lineup, 1-4 is pretty much set, but that No. 5 position is obviously going to be a battle.

JC: Yeah, I think Josip is a tremendous offensive player. We need to get Josip going to the boards a little harder to rebound. Heís very tricky. He can pop and shoot right-handed, left-handed, in the paint. Heís got a tremendous huge body and he loves the game. We sometimes have to chase him out of the gym. Heís certainly going to battle for some playing time. And Iím hoping and I believe Elliott Poole, as he improves, like weíre projecting, thereís no question that heís going to give somebody some problems inside. This calls for a season of pressing and running guys in and numbers, because I think the competition in the post area, and on the wings and the guard position is going to be pretty stiff.

W: Is there a guy that will assume the role of Jonathan as an ďIce water-in-his-veins typeĒ of shooter?

JC: Weíre hoping that Cedrick will shape himself into a player that not only consistently gives us points in the perimeter, but also someone, when we need big shots, heíll come through. Heís shown that side of himself against Loyola a couple of years ago. Against Wisconsin-Milwaukee, we needed big shots and he came through. Cedrick Banks is going to be our go-to guy for us, but weíre looking for two or three guys to come through, so we donít have to just count on one person, like we did last year with Jonathan. Because teams started to smother Jonathan, and he didnít get as many shots as we wanted him to get. Hopefully, Cedrick will take over that spot.

W: Speaking of shooting, what happened with the free-throw shooting last year?

JC: You know, we practice, we practice, we practice. Players now, mostly, just play off creative instinct. They practice their moves. The get their game together by moving. Most of them are rhythm players. We had very few rhythm players other than Jon. Jon always approached his free throws the same way, always had his eyes on the target. Iím noticing more as I look on film that guys are bouncing the ball and looking down, looking down, looking down, and then they come up and shoot. Weíre going to work on free throws and focus on the target. We worked on them a lot last year, but this year, weíre going to put a special effort on guys looking at the target.

W: Is there anyone on the team that will surprise the fans? Maybe a guy that people know little about now?

JC: I think Iíve got twoóJustin Bowen and Jovan Stefanov.

W: On to scheduling. Surely there will be a few changes between now and November, but whatís it like to possibly face three Big Ten teams?

JC: Well, that wonít change. Youíve been here a long time, Iíve always wanted to floor the type of team that can be competitive against anybody. We also want to play in the NCAA [tournament] and the NIT, and the only way to do that is to become war-tested during the course of the season. Certainly playing Illinois, Iowa, Northwestern, those are the kind of teams thatís going to get you war-tested. We want to play a competitive schedule every year. Weíve won 20 games and played in the two tournaments the last two years, weíre still looked [down on]. Weíre the last team to get any pub. There are times where we win big games and DePaul loses, and the headlines the next day talk about DePaul. So, weíre still trying to get our program as such where we want to be known as a ďbasketball school,Ē a school that goes out and competes against the very, very best. In order to get the pub I was just talking about, thatís what you have to do. These are certainly the type of games that will get us noticed.

W: What would it take to get a team like Illinois back on the schedule every year, like it once was?

JC: Itís going to take some fence-mending, obviously. Itís going to take us being worthy. Illinois probably didnít want to play us, because we didnít have the [good] RPI. We have to upgrade and our RPI as such where we arenít going to hurt them to play us close or possible lose. And then our A.D. [Jim Schmidt] and their A.D. [Ron Guenther] and our administration, we can help each other and we should help each other. Our A.D. and the administration need to sit down and talk, and if I have to join in those talks, I certainly will.

W: Speaking of Illinois, let segue into another area of discussion. Were you ever contacted about the latest Illinois opening?

JC: No.

W: Is there a way youíd ever go back, if things changed?

JC: I love Illinois and what it did for me. Illinois helped me tremendously as far as dealing with people, understanding the Midwest, being involved in such a program that demands respect. You canít turn down those things, if given the opportunity. Iíve met some wonderful people in Champaign. If [an opportunity] were to come, Iíd certainly have to listen.

W: Your coaching career has had its twists and turns, ups and downs. We donít need to entirely rehash things that happened years ago. I know you probably dislike hearing the name Bruce Pearl uttered in your presence, what was your feeling when he took the job at Wisconsin-Milwaukee and therefore became a member of the Horizon League?

JC: Well, I donít duck questions. Bruce and I have had some conflict and itís been well-documented. [Bruceís hiring at UWM] didnít bother me, because I had no control over it. In this profession, for the most part, youíve got to look out for each other. There were some things that happed then that later on came up in the investigation that weíre totally untrue, and people found out they were untrue. I was hurt for years, career-wise, because of those lies. That will always leave a bitter taste in my mouth. But you know what? Iím past it. The Lord has blessed me to get by that incident. I look forward to playing him. I look forward to competing against him. I think itís a great rivalry, and I think the fact that we went through that particular ordeal years ago makes it a great rivalry. Itís good for college basketball. Itís good for both cities.

W: Is it your strategy just to ignore the head coach and focus on beating the UWM team?

JC: I do that anyway, regardless of who we play. I donít have time to worry about the coach. I have to worry about what heís doing with the kids that heís playing. Itís pretty obvious that I stand by my convictions. Thereís a saying that goes, ďIf you donít stand for something, youíll fall for anything.Ē Well, [Bruce and I] are never going to be friends. I donít want to be friends, but we donít have to be bitter enemies. He did what he did and he obviously felt at that time what he was doing was right. I think now that he knows it was a mistakeóit hurt him, it hurt me. Weíre past it.

W: Do you take additional pleasure in beating UWM, then?

JC: Iím a competitor (smiles), I like to beat everybody. I like to beat everybody. This year, I wanted to beat them, because they were one of the top teams in our conference. It really didnít matter that it was [Pearl]. I took additional pleasure in winning that game (the 102-92 victory over the Panthers in January at the Pavilion).

W: People are probably going to be skeptical about Marcetteaus McGee, although he is not yet a member of the basketball team. What are your feelings on this situation, and is there a timeline as to whether or not, Marcetteaus is going to be on the team?

JC: I never want to make light of a situation like that. Marcetteaus was at the wrong place at the wrong time. There was an article written about Marcetteaus that certainly didnít merit a headline in the sports page when the kid wasnít even on the ball team [at UIC]. Because of that article, our administrators are involved, and rightfully so. To put a timeline on administrators, you canít do that. Iím going to wait and hope everything works out. Hopefully, people will understand the nature of whatís been written and whatís actually happened. Hopefully, Marcetteaus will get a second chance to stay out of the wrong places. Iíve come to know him. Heís a respectable kid.

W: Surely, youíve been able to get quality players like Ced Banks, Martell Bailey, Armond Williams and the like, but really how hard is it to get that top-flite talent to come to a so-called ďmid-majorĒ school?

JC: Itís always hard, but weíve got Elliott Poole coming in, and even Marcetteaus, who is a top player. When you recruit in the city, itís hard, because a lot of the people in the city who think theyíre experts in guiding kids, always get involved. Martell had a choice of going to UIC or to Notre Dame. There were people out there telling Martell, ďdonít go to UIC, go to Notre Dame,Ē because of Notre Dameís name. In actuality, Martell was not a Notre Dame-type kid. Not that he couldnít play there, he could play anywhere, but the things they were demanding of him were not culturally right for him. There a lot of people out there that look past some of things extremely important for kids as far as adjustments. Itís important for a kid to go some place and make a subtle adjustment, as opposed to going [to a place] where heís snatched into something totally different. There are a lot of people out in the streets that arenít doing a whole lot with themselves, and think they know where these kids should play. But, weíve been able to overcome a lot of that. Winning has a way of changing things, and weíre starting to win .

W: What are your most interesting recruiting stories?

JC: The one I remember more than anything was practically moving to Altgeld Gardens to recruit Jerry Gee. Jerry Gee was a young man that we really tried to lure away from Minnesota and Duke. We [the University of Illinois] were at the bottom of his wish list, and I got to know Jerry well, because I have some relatives that lived in Altgeld Gardens (public housing at 131st St. and Ingleside on Chicagoís South Side). I virtually moved in with them, so I could get a glance at Jerry every day, and he could get a glance at me. One night I was out there trying to get that peek, and some guys came around the corner and started to shoot. They were shooting at somebody, and of course, I was standing there. Needless to say, I saw a bunch of those bullets hit the sidewalk. That was sure a pretty interesting event. The other was when I signed Nick Anderson. We were up against DePaul and Indiana. At that time, you could go to site and sign a kid at 8 in the morning. Nick was playing in an all-star game in Detroit, and I got thereóI knew where he was stayingóI got to his room at 8 oíclock. At 8:01, I signed him. As I was coming down the elevator, DePaul was coming up with its letter of intent. I got down, I had my letter of the intent in my arm, and they were going up with their letter. It was too late, I had already beaten them.

W: Is it true that you tried to recruit Shaquille OíNeal to come to Illinois?

JC: As a matter of fact, it is true. Shaquille visited two universities. His was an interesting story, too. He visited LSU and Illinois, and he visited Illinois first. We flew him in, and I thought we had a great opportunity to get him. We had a great weekend, a good football game. Iím not sure if it was Michigan or whomever, and the weather was really, really good. Sunday, when I was taking him back to airport for him to fly back to San Antonio, it got cold and it started to snow. And all he had talked about was how much he hated snow and cold. By the time I got to OíHare, I had a pretty good idea that we had lost Shaquille. But he really liked Lou Henson, our staff and our players.

W: What is it like recruiting nowadays? The kids are into rap and hip-hop and video games and stuff like that. How do you relate to the kids?

JC: Kids are still kids. They are still basically the same people that Iíve been recruiting forever. They have a love and a passion for the game of basketball. Most young people want discipline in their lives. Yes, Iíve had to change the type of music that I listen to. Iíve had to change the way I talk to them, because kids now, more than ever, need compassion and love. Things that you can say to kids years ago, you canít say now. Itís just the sign of the times. Basically, my method is the same as it has always been, try to be straight with them, discipline as needed, let them know that their destiny is in their hands and itís about them. Itís not about meóIím not trying to change your game, Iím trying to enhance your game.

W: What do you say to kid that thinks he can be in the NBA and he may not be quite that good?

JC: I never tell a kid that he canít make it. Iíve seen a lot of players that I thought could never make it in the NBA, and they made it, and theyíve lasted. I personally didnít think Ken Norman was an NBA player when I first saw him, and he stayed in the NBA for 10 years. I always tell kids to set their goals high, but not to put all their eggs in one basket. If itís to be, it will be.

W: Who did you emulate while you were younger?

JC: The player that I really enjoyed playing against in high school was Dave Bing. He was a first-round draft choice with the Detroit Pistons. He was the player that I mostly wanted to play like. He was a mentor, because he sat down and told kids what they needed to work on and gave all kids of advice.

W: Was there a specific coach that you pattern you style after?

JC: No. I pretty much never wanted to change my thought process, and the style of play that I had in mind. I did enjoy Lou Hensonís work ethic and his passion for the Xís and Oís. I always thought his approach and mine would certainly be different, but I always enjoy watching him prepare. Thatís the aspect that I take on the court with my team.

W: What has the success of Butler, Gonzaga, Creighton and Kent State done for a program like UIC, which is pretty close to breaking out and achieving that level of success?

JC: I think itís made people more aware of the parity, more aware that good ballplayers and good coaches donít just come from Notre Dame or North Carolina and places like that. Players and coaches work hard to be the best they at all institutions.

W: Do you see an NCAA tournament bid for the Flames next season?

JC: Itís well within the realm of possibility and thatís what Iím telling my team to look forward to and to strive for. I certainly think that if our heads stay on right, and if these kids work like they did in past years, the possibilities of getting in are very strong.

W: If UIC were to lose in the conference tournament, but has a good record, it canít hurt that Jon LeCrone is now on the NCAA selection committee?

JC: No, that canít hurt. Again, it canít hurt, alluding that question before, how people are looking at mid-majors now. We have a very competitive schedule and the RPI of some of the teams in our conference are going to go up, I have to believe if we do well and weíve got a good record that weíve got an excellent chance [at an at-large berth].

W: Do you see UIC and similar teams at the ďmid-majorĒ level one day being compared to and grouped with schools from the Big Ten, Big 12, ACC, SEC, and so forth?

JC: Itís certainly possible. I can remember Connecticut and St. Johnísóand how people didnít think a whole lot about them. When you start winning and you have that big conference affiliationóand our conference is certainly growing as far as power ratings goóI think we will start being talked about with some of those schools.

W: Youíve been at UIC for seven years now. What do you say to people and the media in this town that have either ignored or ďblew offĒ the Flames?

JC: Well, you know what, you have to be extremely careful with what say about the media (laughs). Those are the people that virtually hold your destiny. I say, ďWatch us. Continue to support these local kids that we have representing the city of Chicago. Weíre graduating kids at a tremendous rate. Our kids arenít getting in trouble. Our kids represent the University with a lot of class. Take those things into consideration, because itís not just about playing basketball.Ē

W: Finally, seven years ago, where did you see yourself going with this program?

JC: When I took this job, I sat down and talked with our athletic director [Jim Schmidt]. I talked with radio people and I told them our program was going to raise a little excitement. That we would make some tournaments and we would be competitive. I believed that from the very beginning. I know itís an overused clichť, but weíre a sleeping giant. I think thatówith our administrators, our backing, the type of players that weíve got coming into the University, and the fact that our University is growing at an unbelievable rateóitís waking up. The sleeping giant is waking up. I certainly hope people take note of that.

In other recent news:
McGee's future in question; schedule news; Horizon apology (5/08/03)
Year-end banquet celebrates accomplishments and awards (5/06/03)
Flame tidbits: Recruiting update, Farmer signs with Vikings (4/29/03)
Western Illinois coaching search includes Coomes (4/12/03)
News, notes and observations from around the Horizon League (4/09/03)
ALUMNI UPDATE: Ford and Miller find success overseas (4/03/03)
Butler does Horizon League proud (plus recruiting update) (3/28/03)
Flames' recruiting update (3/26/03)
FORMER FLAME UPDATE: Hallberg, Brown, Solverson (3/21/03)