By Robbie Weinstein
Starting at 4 p.m. Sunday at Little Caesar’s Arena in Detroit, UIC’s season is on the line.
The No. 3-seeded Flames take on sixth-seeded Milwaukee in the quarterfinals of Motor City Madness, the Horizon League’s tournament. Historically, the league tournament’s winner has been the only Horizon team given a berth to the NCAA Tournament, and this year will be no exception — the conference ranks 26th out of 32 in RPI and KenPom.com’s ratings.
Like all of its conference foes, UIC must win the league tournament to punch its ticket to the Big Dance. Although the Flames went 0-4 against first-seeded Northern Kentucky and second-seeded Wright State in the regular season, their recent play has them confident.
“They’ve done a lot of things this year and still got a lot to do that haven’t been done in 15, 16 years. As I told them, we’re not the game on the schedule anymore that everybody thinks they can win,” head coach Steve McClain said after UIC’s senior-night loss to Wright State.
“I see so much growth in this team that it gets me excited to go to Detroit.”
UIC will likely have to upset one or both of the Norse and Raiders to win the tournament, but its immediate focus is on Milwaukee. The Flames swept the Panthers in the regular season by a combined 33 points, but Milwaukee holds road victories over Iowa State and Wright State and blew out Missouri Valley Conference heavyweight Loyola-Chicago at home.
The Panthers are tough in the paint with 6-7, 230-pound Bryce Nze and 6-9, 225-pound Brett Prahl. Milwaukee ranks 18th nationally in defensive rebounding by percentage, according to KenPom.com, but McClain feels his team’s last two games helped with preparation.
“I think that’s why you saw us come out after the Northern Kentucky game and be so much better in the first half of this game, because you can get a fallacy that it’s easy,” McClain said. “There’s no question I think this is great for us, because Milwaukee is a very physical team, and they foul all the time. So we’ll be used to playing through that.”
Milwaukee will try to tighten up on Flames point guard Tarkus Ferguson, who roasted the Panthers for averages of 17 points, 6.5 rebounds and seven assists in this season’s two games. UIC held Milwaukee to only .90 points per possession over the two games, far below the Division I average of roughly 1.02.
“We just need to stick to our game plan, play them the same way we did the first two times,” UIC center Tai Odiase said. “We really played overall great defense in each of those games, and I think if we just continue to do that, we’ll be fine.”