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Hop aboard the hype train

Flames offense looks stellar in warmup

By Mike Pankow

November 6, 2017

Mike Pankow/Whoosh!

Redshirt sophomore Dikembe Dixson scored 15 points against St. Francis in his first game action since December.

It took a while, but UIC finally started living up to its newfound preseason hype.

The deeper, more experienced, but still youthful Flames shared the basketball and put together a full-scale thrashing of St. Francis of Joliet 97-62 at the Pavilion on Wednesday night, Oct. 25.

The exhibition game was made about a week before a previously scheduled “Meet the Team” event was supposed to have taken place. The NCAA approved teams playing an extra exhibition game to help raise funds and help those in need after the destructive hurricanes of the last two months.

Picked to finish third in the Horizon League, UIC is coming off a 17-19 season in which it reached the semifinals of the College Basketball Invitational with a team of mostly underclassmen and mostly without the services of star small forward Dikembe Dixson, who suffered a knee injury in December.

Four players scored in double figures, including the returning Dixson, as the Flames shared the wealth while shooting 61.2 percent from the field.

UIC coach Steve McClain said he has eight players that can start, almost an embarrassment of riches compared to when he walked into the doors of the Pavilion two years ago.

McClain relishes how the team has come together and accepted their various roles, which is conducive to breeding a successful environment.

“The only people who care about who starts are parents and girlfriends, because I don't,” McClain said. “If (the players) don’t (care), we're going to have a chance to be a good team, because they won't be distracted, they'll worry about winning."

There were plenty of Flames filling the basket, thanks to sophomore guard Tarkus Ferguson, who handed out 13 assists without a turnover. Ferguson, who has great scoring ability himself, had just seven points, but McClain was impressed with his unselfish play.

“In this day and age to literally have a guy not care if he scores is great,” McClain said. “He wants to lead the nation in assists. The good part is he's got some guys playing with him that can help him do that.”

One of the beneficiaries of Ferguson’s passing was senior Tai Odiase.

The 6-foot-9 center bulked up another 20 pounds during the offseason and the once-defensive-dominant big man proved he can be an offensive force. Odiase went 10-for-10 from the field and finished with 21 points.

"I've been working all fall," said Odiase, who credited Chris McMillian with helping him and teammates gain strength. “I think I won't be pushed off the block as easily. I will finish a lot plays since I'm stronger."

Odiase also blocked three shots as is his trademark.

Mike Pankow/Whoosh!

UIC coach Steve McClain talks to Tai Odiase (from left), Dikembe Dixson, Tarkus Ferguson and Marcus Ottey during a timeout in the second half.

Through it all, the biggest thing Flames fans were looking for was the progress of Dixson following the recovery of his surgically-repaired left knee.

Dixson started a little slowly, perhaps letting his teammates get more into the flow of the game. He finally put home a transition dunk with 1:07 left in the first half for his first points before ending up with 15 points on 7-for-9 shooting.

“It was typical Dikembe,” UIC coach Steve McClain said. “He had nothing and then all of sudden, there he goes. That’s who he is. It was important for him to get back out there. One of the referees asked me, ‘Did he grow too?’ He's feeling good. He was excited to be out there today.”

Perhaps the reason for the low-scoring start was Dixson is starting to adjust to having teammates he can trust.

“He’s the same old ’Kembe honestly,” Odiase said. “He was not altered by the injury. He’s got to break (back) in a little bit, but in the second half, he asserted himself and looked like his old self.

“Last year, we had a whole bunch of a new guys. This year he’s gaining a little bit more trust with these guys.”

Sophomore guards Marcus Ottey and Dominique Matthews were also on fire offensively.

Ottey scored on a variety of slashing moves to the basket and outside shots, finishing with 20 points on 8-for-11 shooting, including three 3-pointers.

Matthews scored 16 points while hitting four 3-pointers, including three triples during a decisive 16-2 run midway through the first half.

The Flames were crisp offensively, finishing with 32 assists on 41 field goals while turning the ball over just 13 times.

"We saw it last year, when we moved the ball like that, we were really good,” McClain said. “It’s good to see us to have that mind-set in our first game. If the ball moves, everybody scores.”

And even the parents and girlfriends should be happy with that.

FLAMES FLICKERS: McClain elected to go with a starting lineup of Dixson, sophomore forward Jordan Blount, Odiase, Ottey and Ferguson. Blount opened some eyes, if not with his stats of six points, six rebounds and three assists but with his hustle and leadership. "I love Jordan's energy,” McClain said. “He plays with a great enthusiasm. Our fans are going to love him. … He’s got a great basketball IQ.” Blount was the only player to foul out. … Freshmen Jacob Wiley and Ralph Bissainthe each scored a basket while junior newcomer Naradain James was scoreless on 0-for-2 shooting. Wiley also had four rebounds in 15 minutes. … Reserve center Clint Robinson stuffed the stat sheet with five points, seven rebounds, three assists, three blocks and two steals in 17 minutes. … UIC opens the regular season Friday night against North Carolina Central at the Pavilion. Tip time is 7 p.m. There will be a pregame tailgate across the street from the Pavilion, starting at 4:30.

POSTGAME VIDEOS:

In other recent news:
McClain earns faith from UIC (4/20/17)
Taking it on the ‘Chin’ (4/17/17)
Shocking exodus: Santos, Kolawole, Thomas leaving (3/30/17)
CBI: Coastal Carolina 89, UIC 78: Bittersweet ending (3/23/17)