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Collins hitches trailer to VanderMeer


August 26, 2008

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Senior center Scott VanderMeer is UIC’s key to unlocking the door to the NCAA tournament.

UIC coach Jimmy Collins laid it on the line: Scott VanderMeer is the man that can open the door for the Flames to get into the NCAA tournament this season.

The 7-foot, 265-pound VanderMeer is entering his senior season and his third year on the court for UIC and has been working hard to improve his game.

The most pleasant thing VanderMeer has given Collins this summer is a positive attitude and an elevated set of expectations.

“When I talk to Scott, I noticed that his confidence level has certainly gone up,” Collins said. “His expectations have risen to points that I didn’t think that he would verbally express. Scott’s not a talkative guy. When he starts talking about winning and going to the NCAA, it’s music to my ears.”

With VanderMeer dominating the post with his defense and looking to score more, Collins believes the big man will be the critical component to open up the Flames’ offense.

“Scott is the key to what we’re trying to do,” Collins said. “If we can get some more (offensive) productivity from Scott inside, it will get to the point where people have to crash and attack him and that means that Robo (Kreps), Josh (Mayo), Spencer (Stewart), Tori (Boyd) and some of the new guys are going to be able to hit some open shots.”

Collins added the VanderMeer is in better condition and ready to take whatever pounding the opposition provides. The coach is happy that VanderMeer is refining his game.”

“The one thing I like to see him do more is keep the ball above his head, use his height to his advantage. We want him to be more assertive offensively. Defensively, I’m confident he’s going to continue to (disrupt) and block shots.”

VanderMeer is just one part of a Flames squad that has plenty of returning stars and a solid recruiting class. It’s a mix that will provide the Flames with a chance to show off a deep, balanced squad that can challenge for a Horizon League championship.

“I’m cautiously optimistic, but we’ve got a great group of young guys,” Collins said. “You don’t want to stamp anything in the cement, because (the new guys) are not proven. We know what their reputations are; We know their potential.”

Pressed to name a starting lineup, Collins rattled off six names that are likely to end up in the five starting positions: Junior Spencer Stewart at the point, senior Josh Mayo at the shooting guard, sophomore Tori Boyd at the small forward, junior Jeremy Buttell at the power forward and VanderMeer, of course, in the middle. Collins also believes that sophomore guard Robo Kreps can crack the lineup, but regardless will play important minutes.

“Those guys have the experience and that beats luck, hoping and wishing,” Collins said. “But we’ve got some (other) guys that are certainly going to compete for time.”

Buttell played with an injured right shoulder last season, but Collins believes that the Texas Tech transfer will be ready to go with renewed vigor.

“It was something that bothered him during the season, but he never complained about it and he wanted to play,” Collins said.

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Sophomore Tori Boyd should be one of the Flames’ most improved players.

Collins expects big things from Boyd this season and gushes over his athletic talents: “We expect Tori Boyd to be a person that’s going to show some maturity. He showed signs last year, but he was getting adjusted to Division I basketball.”

The Flames’ top scorer, Mayo, will also be vital to the Flames’ success. Mayo exploded for 34 points in last year’s season opener against Bradley and was UIC’s top offensive weapon all year. The Merrillville, Ind. native continues to work to get better.

“Josh thinks he can be better,” Collins said. “Every single day, I can count on seeing Josh in the gym. I’m certainly going to allow him to shoot the basketball.”

Likely coming off the bench will be junior forward Jovan Ignjatovic, whom Collins says has “improved leaps and bounds,” according to teammates.

“I always thought Iggy had the best skill set of any of our post guys with his abilities to pop out and shoot. He just needs to be more aggressive.”

The Flames also have a crew of six newcomers that Collins expects to have an impact:

Robert Eppinger (6-8 junior forward): “Eppinger could be a beast, a guy who can certainly make life easier for Scott and Jeremy. He has great hands and he’s an aggressive player. That’s a great combination.”

Jelani Poston (6-7 freshman forward): “Athletically, we don’t have anyone other than maybe Tori that matches up with Poston. He’s tall and long and extremely athletic.”

DeMarkus Isom-Jones (6-5 freshman swingman): “Ice brings toughness and he’s a smart kid as well. When you combine those things, you have a very good basketball player.”

Zavion Neely (6-1 freshman guard): “Neely is just a player that a lot of people where people are going to say, ‘Who is this kid?’ ” Collins also added that there some comparisons to Mayo: “He wasn’t a big guy, didn’t win a state title and was overlooked, but we knew he could play. We feel the same way about Neely.”

Chris Buchanan (6-3 junior guard): “Buchanan is a good shooter and he wanted to come to UIC. He wanted to be here.”

Kris Harris (6-3 junior guard): “I’m really expecting some good things from Kris Harris. He’s aggressive defensively. I hope to have him spell Spencer at times this year.”

At the end of last season, Collins’ future beyond the 2008-09 season was in limbo, but the school and Collins hammered out a three-year contract extension last month.

“Somebody believes in what we’ve been doing and what we’ve accomplished,” Collins said. “With the contract extension, it gives me a chance to prove them right.”

With a load of talent, Collins believes this might the squad that will please the administration even more by bringing home another Horizon League championship and a trip to the NCAA tournament.

“This year we feel that we have at least 10 guys that can get out there and be aggressive. We’re really looking to go up-tempo with more pressing and more motion offense. We certainly believe that this team brings that kind of athleticism to the table.”

In other recent news:
Collins granted 3-year extension (7/2/08)
UIC nets Eppinger, Isom-Jones (team awards) (4/29/08)
Collins: "I could do this for 3-4 more years" (team, recruiting) (4/7/08)
Flames' seniors reflect (3/18/08)
HORIZON TOURNEY: Weary Flames bow out in semifinals (at Butler) (3/9/08)
HORIZON TOURNEY: Flames freshmen close out Loyola (3/8/08)
HORIZON TOURNEY: Loyola awaits UIC for Round 3 (3/6/08)
HORIZON TOURNEY: Balance boosts Flames past YSU (3/5/08)
Mayo, VanderMeer receive Horizon honors (3/4/08)