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COMMENTARY: Flames still under the radar

COULD TURN HEADS IN HORIZON, ILLINOIS

January 2, 2008

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Freshman guard Robert Kreps has been a big reason for the success of the Flames. Could his future be as bright as Butler star guard A.J. Graves?

About a year ago, the UIC Flames were a team in disarray. Head coach Jimmy Collins was about to undergo surgery. Several players had left the team. Accusations were made against an assistant coach.

What a difference a year makes.

A rejuvenated Collins and a sleeker, more intelligent cast of characters have turned the Flames into a contender.

UIC is 8-5 after losing a close game at Akron last Saturday without two starters. In all, the Flames have won six of their last eight games and own victories against Bradley and DePaul. They are also 2-0 in Horizon League play with December wins over Milwaukee and Green Bay.

Junior guard Josh Mayo has emerged as the go-to guy for the Flames, averaging over 18 points per game and notching two 30-point contests this season. The Merrillville, Ind. native has been a calm, mature influence on this group.

Junior center Scott VanderMeer has anchored the inside defensively, getting his share of blocked shots and improving his offensive game.

Sophomore point guard Spencer Stewart has done an excellent job of running the team. Now, with Stewart injured, the Flames will need to find others to handle Stewart’s role for the next few weeks, but Mayo has proven that he can handle the point as well.

Freshman Robert “Robo” Kreps has emerged as a star-in-the-making. The 6-foot guard from Forsyth, Ill. may have the appearance of a regular-looking college kid, but he has skills on the basketball court. Kreps has shown a natural shooting ability and the poise of a senior. He is fundamentally sound – reading the angles for long rebounds, stepping in the passing lanes on defense, making the smart passes on offense.

Here’s a bold statement for you: Kreps is beginning to look like a younger version of Butler star guard A.J. Graves, a player whose motor never stops and plays the game with confidence and intensity at all times.

Senior forward Jermaine Dailey has proven to be more than just a bit player this season. In fact, Dailey has been the most aggressive post defender in recent games and has seen his block totals rise.

Senior forward Robert Bush, who started the season with an injured knee, has finally looked comfortable out on the court in recent games. In last week’s loss to Akron, Bush scored a season-high 19 points. He is now appearing to be the player that Collins envisioned at the beginning of the season.

Senior guard Karl White Jr. has played some of his best ball for the Flames this season. Defensively, his quick hands and instincts often frustrate opposing ball-handlers. Offensively, White has started to display an intelligent, controlled attitude – taking shots when they are available, driving to the hole and dishing off when in trouble.

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UIC sophomore forward Jeremy Buttell has been a boon to the Flames’ depth, providing rebounding and an occasional scoring punch.

Sophomore forward Jeremy Buttell, who has been fighting through some minor nagging leg injuries, has given the Flames a solid rebounding presence off the bench. As the season wears on, Buttell will be a more viable offensive option with his perimeter skills at 6-foot-7.

Freshman forward Tori Boyd has shown some flashes of brilliance this season, but he also shown some freshman tendencies and has committed too many turnovers. However, Boyd has tremendous upside and can provide points on the drive and from the perimeter. His wingspan at 6-foot-5 will bother some small forwards and shooting guards.

Redshirt sophomore forward Jovan Ignjatovic has given UIC some solid minutes in the post. “Iggy” is not afraid to bang with bigger bodies to get rebounds and has a deft touch around the basket. He also likes to shoot from the perimeter.

When the team is completely healthy, Collins has a solid 8-to-10-man rotation that stacks up with the best teams in the Horizon League. Observers have put Butler, Wright State and Valparaiso at the top of the list when it comes to ballclubs that have the potential to win the conference.

But don’t count out UIC. They already own a 2-0 conference record and have a really good chance to stay undefeated when they visit Youngstown State and Cleveland State this weekend. Butler and Wright State have already suffered league defeats.

The Flames aren’t only under the radar in the Horizon, but they’re also under the radar in the state of Illinois. A solid argument could be made for UIC being the best Division I team in the state.

Illinois has suffered two tough home losses, including an embarrassing setback against Tennessee State. DePaul has been disappointing this season and the Blue Demons have a home loss to North Carolina A&T. Northwestern is stuck in neutral. Loyola appears to be rebuilding after the losses of Blake Schilb and Majak Kou. Chicago State, Eastern Illinois, Northern Illinois and Western Illinois have continued to struggle. Even Southern Illinois is hovering around .500 after several great years. Bradley, after a solid start, has dipped to 7-6 and has lost point guard Daniel Ruffin to injury.

The only other team in the conversation is Illinois State of the Missouri Valley Conference.

ISU owns a 26-point victory over the Flames, but that game was tied at halftime in Normal before the Redbirds took advantage of the Flames’ worst 20 minutes of basketball this season. ISU is now 10-3 under first-year head coach Tim Jankovich after two quality conference road wins.

Just a year ago, if someone said that UIC would be in the contention for the being the best in anything, he or she would be called crazy.

Three hundred some-odd days later, there’s been a major 180.

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Senior guard Byron Davis leads Youngstown State at 14.6 points per game.

UP NEXT: The Flames return to Horizon League play Thursday when they travel to Youngstown State. The Penguins are 4-7 overall, 0-1 in the league and 2-2 at the Beeghly Center this season.

Senior guard Byron Davis leads the way for YSU, averaging 14.6 points and 3.0 assists per game. Senior forward John Barber and junior forward Jack Liles are also in double figures at 12.6 and 11.5 points, respectively. Liles is the team’s best post threat, shooting 54 percent from the field and grabbing 5.5 rebounds per outing.

Redshirt freshman guard Vance Cooksey, from Marian Catholic, averages 8.0 points and 4.0 assists per contest. The Penguins’ other starter is 6-foot-7 freshman Vytas Sulskis, who is the team’s biggest three-point threat, shoots it at 43 percent from deep.

YSU is regrouping after losing star seniors Quin Humphrey and Keston Roberts to graduation. Most observers have predicted the Penguins to finish near the bottom of the conference.

UIC has dominated the all-time series, winning 16 of the 17 games. YSU actually won for the first time, 92-87, in the teams’ last meeting back on Feb. 3. In that game, YSU shot 14-for-18 from three-point range.

The game tips off at 6:35 p.m. on Thursday with a video streaming available on the Horizon League Network and audio streaming, with Flames’ play-by-play man Adam Levinson, will be available on www.uicflames.com.

In other recent news:
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)
Horizon play opens with mirror images (Milwaukee preview) (12/5/07)