By Robbie Weinstein
The 2017-18 season was supposed to represent a step forward for UIC.
Picked third in the Horizon League’s preseason poll, the Flames returned a roster full of talented sophomores who played well as freshmen. But after a 86-51 stomping at the hands of Northern Kentucky on December 30 that sent the team to 5-10 and 0-2 in league play, it was clear that something had to change.
“Before the season, there was a lot of hype,” sophomore point guard Tarkus Ferguson said. “We was supposed to be the 1-, 2- or 3-seed in the conference and win the conference, stuff like that. So I think that kind of got to our heads a lot; we thought about it a little bit too much. We wasn’t hungry enough.”
While a change in approach may have been necessary, UIC also needed to get healthy. Ferguson missed all of December as he battled a right foot injury, and the Flames lost six of seven games against Division I opponents without their point guard.
Ferguson averages only 8.8 points per game, but his 5.0 assists per game would rank second in the league if he had played enough to qualify. His replacements couldn’t replicate the floor vision he brings, and the Flames averaged only 62.4 points per game over that seven-game stretch.
“We didn’t have Tarkus Ferguson for six [sic] games, and I think any time you lose your starting point guard, it’s going to affect how you play,” head coach Steve McClain said. “I think as I evaluate it, there’s no question I thought we’d have two or three more wins in the non-conference, but I also knew we were playing a really hard schedule. Then when you throw the injuries into it, it was what it was.”
Ferguson returned for the next game at IUPUI on January 4, and the Flames responded by earning their first road win of the season. UIC has won seven of eight since Ferguson’s return, vaulting to third place in the Horizon while averaging 79.3 points per game.
As much as it helps to have Ferguson back, he and McClain feel his absence helped fellow sophomore Marcus Ottey. Typically a shooting guard, Ottey shared point guard duties with Godwin Boahen when Ferguson went down. Ottey even played point for 38 minutes at Northern Illinois with Boahen out.
According to KenPom.com, Ottey’s usage rate rose to 25.7 percent from 22.5 during Ferguson’s absence, meaning Ottey finished more plays with a shot, assist, free throw or turnover. Ferguson’s return pushed Ottey back to shooting guard, but he’s deferring less. Ottey has taken more than one extra shot per game than he averaged before Ferguson’s injury and scored a career-high 29 points at Youngstown State on January 18.
“He wasn’t too offensively minded,” Ferguson said. “He was trying to help the team as much as he can, but me as well. As I went out, he picked up that responsibility to pass and also score.”
As a result, UIC holds a 7-3 record in conference play and feels it has even more weapons than when the season started. The Flames have played the third-hardest conference schedule among the 10 Horizon League teams so far, according to KenPom.com, suggesting the road gets easier from here.
With only one senior—center Tai Odiase—in the rotation, UIC will hope its six sophomores can take a step forward by winning the games they’re supposed to. Even with Ferguson, the Flames have lost by large margins to IPFW and Troy, teams UIC shouldn’t be blown out by. UIC saw firsthand what it takes to reach the top of the Horizon League in its January 15 loss to Oakland, the Flames’ only defeat since Ferguson returned.
“It would not surprise me if they won every game the rest of the year. It would not surprise me if they went 50-50,” Oakland head coach Greg Kampe said after the Golden Grizzlies’ win. “It takes time to build a winning culture. I do think they are way ahead of the curve.”
McClain might not have a stable of upperclassmen with Horizon League experience, but he’ll hope his sophomores can build a strong, recognizable identity over the last several weeks of the season.
“You know you’ll go through still some tough times,” McClain said. “I feel like we’re getting better right now. That’s what you want as a coach, to be in January and know we’re starting to play like we’re capable of playing.”