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With Ramblers on horizon, Flames making tweaks

PLAYERS FUEL ON RIVALRY

January 11, 2008

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Sophomore forward Jeremy Buttell noticed the need for the Flames to find more passion on defense.

After practice Thursday, UIC players were adamant about improving upon a subpar three-game road swing through Ohio and working on finding the passion on the defensive end.

After a film session earlier in the week, the Flames noticed their “lack of desire to play defense,” according to junior guard Josh Mayo.

Numerous players cited poor communication, non-existent help defense and weaknesses in rebounding and diving after loose balls. The Flames left way too many open driving lanes, causing opponents to penetrate and open up their offenses.

“It definitely has been addressed,” sophomore forward Jeremy Buttell said. “Ever since we got back from that road trip, it has been our top priority. We’ve all noticed improvement over the last couple of days in practice.”

It’s a good time for the Flames to rediscover that fire as a three-game Horizon League homestand begins Saturday against Loyola.

UIC enters the game at 8-7 overall and 2-2 in the Horizon League after dropping games at Akron, Youngstown State and Cleveland State. The Flames did not have the services of their starting point guard Spencer Stewart in any of those games.

The crosstown Ramblers, meanwhile, have the looks of a rebuilding team. Riding a six-game road losing streak, Loyola stands at 5-10 overall and 1-4 in conference, but don’t think that UIC coach Jimmy Collins is taking this game lightly because he knows the Ramblers will be psyched up.

“When Loyola gets ready to play UIC, all the problems they’ve had previously will be remedied,” Collins said. “Mentally they will be up as will we. [Coach] Jim [Whitesell] is going to do a good job of getting them prepared. It’s the kind of game that both schools look forward to. I don’t anticipate a letdown, I anticipate a good game.”

Mayo leads the Flames in scoring at 17.9 points per game and despite a recent shooting slump, is still hitting 52 percent from the field and 56 percent from three-point range.

Also contributing for UIC are freshman guard Robert Kreps (9.3 points per game), senior guard Karl White Jr. (9.2 ppg) and junior center Scott VanderMeer (9.1 ppg, 6.0 rebounds per game).

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The Flames will have to guard against Loyola’s J.R. Blount driving to the basket.

The Ramblers are led by junior point guard J.R. Blount, who is averaging 15.0 points per game, but shoots only 36 percent from the floor. Blount can still be dangerous as he is an adept driver and gets to the free-throw line frequently.

“Blount is the head of the beast,” Collins said. “We’ve got to slow him down.”

Newcomer Justin Cerasoli, a 6-foot-4 guard from West Aurora High School who transferred from Mississippi (where he was recruited by current UIC assistant Tracy Dildy), is an electrifying player that can score off the dribble. He is averaging 12.2 points in six games since becoming eligible.

“Cerasoli is a big guard who handles the ball well,” Collins said. “When he gets on a roll, he can really hurt you. He is what you call a hypnotist on the floor. On defense (off the ball), you get involved in watching him work magic and then your man gets into an opportune position. We have to keep him in front of us.”

Senior forward Tracy Robinson, at 6-foot-7, provides some punch as well, averaging 9.9 points per game.

“[Blake] Schilb and Majak Kou always killed us and Robinson seems like he can break out like one of those guys,” Collins said.

Junior forward Leon Young, the Ramblers’ leading rebounder at 7.1 per game, has missed the last four games with pneumonia. He is questionable for Saturday.

Sophomore forward Andy Polka is another post player that produces for the Ramblers, tallying 8.2 points and 6.3 rebounds per contest.

“Their size bothers us, because once you get past Scott [VanderMeer], we’re considerably smaller than what they’re going to put on the floor,” Collins said. “We’ll have to block out and take care of the basketball.”

Mayo, who hit the game-winning jumper in the team’s last regular-season meeting, knows the rivalry can be an igniter.

“I’m excited, because we usually a good crowd no matter where we play them,” Mayo said.

GAME PRIMER: The game tips at 7 p.m. on Saturday at the UIC Pavilion. If fans can’t get out to the Pavilion, the game can be seen on Lakeshore Public TV with Joe Arredondo and Todd Medland on the call. It will also be video streamed on the Horizon League Network and audio streamed, with Flames’ play-by-play man Adam Levinson, will be available on WIND-AM 560. The Loyola broadcast with John Fitzgerald and Dave Klusendorf can be heard on WYLL-AM 1160. …

Collins is 17-8 against Loyola, including a victory in the 2002 Horizon League championship game, while Whitesell is 5-3 against UIC with two wins in the Horizon League tournament. …

UIC owns a commanding 24-13 advantage in the all-times series, but Loyola has prevailed in five of the last seven meetings. After losing twice in the regular season in 2006-07, the Ramblers defeated the Flames 66-62 at the Horizon League tournament behind Schilb’s 31 points.

Stewart out at least 2 more weeks

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UIC point guard Spencer Stewart said he could possibly be back in two weeks.

UIC point guard Spencer Stewart will miss at least two more weeks as he heals from a spiral fracture in the fourth metacarpal of his left hand.

Stewart said a hard cast was put on his left hand on Wednesday to ensure that the injury finishes healing properly. He previously had a splint on the finger that was attached at the wrist.

“I just got this cast on and they told me go back in two weeks,” Stewart said on Thursday. “If the X-rays say I’m good to go, then they can take the cast off and I’ll be back.”

Stewart said he injured the finger while shooting around and warming up at his alma mater, Edwardsville High School, just before to Christmas. He said the group was planning on playing a pick-up game.

“When I was going for a rebound, I put my [left] hand out to locate a body and it hit a fellow player,” Stewart said. “It was kind of a freak accident.”

The Flames have struggled without Stewart on the court, dropping three straight – all on the road.

“It’s just frustrating,” said Stewart, who suffered through a leg injury for part of last season. “It’s a lot more fun to play than watch it. I miss being competitive.”

Josh Mayo, UIC’s leading scorer, has slipped noticeably as he wrestles with combining ball-handling duties with scoring. Mayo was averaging 19.0 points while shooting 55 percent from the field and 61 percent from three-point range before Stewart’s injury.

In the last three games, Mayo has averaged just 13.3 points on 12-for-31 shooting (39 percent) and 5-for-14 from three (36 percent).

After scoring 19 points against Akron, freshman Robert Kreps’ streak of seven straight double-figure scoring games ended with a thud as he has produced just seven points in UIC’s last two contests.

“Spencer shows toughness,” UIC coach Jimmy Collins said. “He knows where people are supposed to be. He’s always been a point guard.

“Both Josh and Robo [Kreps] have to adjust. They have to be distributors as well as shooters. Once they understand that, things will get better for us.”

In other recent news:
Flames extinguished in Cleveland (plus Bowen update) (1/6/08)
Flames sleepwalk in Youngstown (1/4/08)
COMMENTARY: Flames still under the radar (1/2/08)
Undermanned Flames come up just short (at Akron) (12/30/07)
Flames get White Christmas (vs. Howard) (12/23/07)
Banks returns to Pavilion (vs. Toledo) (12/23/07)
Flames turned up in 2nd half (vs. Toledo) (12/20/07)
Blockbuster trilogy gives UIC win over DePaul (12/16/07)
One more stiff test for Flames (DePaul preview) (12/14/07)
Mayo nets another Player of the Week honor (12/11/07)
Mayo's home cooking serves Flames well (vs. Green Bay) (12/9/07)
Mayo, Flames fired up, take it out on Milwaukee (12/7/07)