The Notebook

Jesse Kramer : The Notebook

Head coach Steve McClain took over a 10-win program and has slowly built the Flames into a contender.

Patience pays off for UIC in third year of McClain era 

by Jesse Kramer,

Ever since he took the job in 2014, UIC head coach Steve McClain has returned to the word “process.” And after the Flames gutted their way through third and fourth consecutive losing seasons, the process has begun to pay off.
McClain took over a 10-win program, and things had to get worse before they got better. The Flames went 5-25 in his first year and were among Division I’s worst teams by any metric. They improved to 17-19 in 2016-17 and earned a postseason bid. This year, they’ve taken another leap to finish the regular season 17-14 and 12-6 in the Horizon League, good for third place.
“Even though we had made progress a year ago, we were still trying to take that jump,” McClain says. “I think this year we took that next step.”
For the first time, McClain’s squad legitimately believes it will cut down the nets at the conference tournament this Friday through Tuesday in Detroit.
“Now we expect to win every game and I don’t think was the case a few years back,” senior center Tai Odiase says. “A few years back we were trying to keep games close. Now we expect to win every game we play in because we know we have the talent and skill.”
After a previous head coaching stint at Wyoming where he made one NCAA Tournament and two NITs, McClain was an assistant at Colorado and then joined Tom Crean’s Indiana staff in 2010 for one of the biggest rebuild projects in college basketball. During his four seasons at Indiana, McClain developed Victor Oladipo into a top two draft pick and helped Crean take the Hoosiers from the bottom of the Big Ten to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Just like Crean had Verdell Jones III at Indiana, McClain had Odiase. When McClain replaced Howard Moore, Odiase, a 6’9” center, was coming off a promising freshman season where he averaged 1.7 blocks. Odiase would’ve had suitors had he transferred, but he stayed.
“He stayed with it believing that we’d reach the point where we did win and people would have a higher opinion of the program,” McClain says. “Now you see him reaping the rewards.”
Odiase has modestly but steadily improved each season. This year he’s averaged 9.4 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.2 blocks, wrapping up his third consecutive Horizon League blocks title. As you may have guessed, he also set the conference’s career blocks in January. 
While McClain has added talented pieces around Odiase, the program still centers on its big man. He’s one of two seniors and the only four-year player on the roster. His journey through the coaching change and into the record books has served as an example for the Horizon League’s youngest roster.
“He’s in the gym all the time, and it carries over to other guys,” says sophomore guard Marcus Ottey, who’s started 21 games and is averaging 13.5 points. “He’s a guy that you listen to when he tells you something because he’s been through it.”
As young as the Flames are this season, they were even younger last season. The youngest roster in Division I, to be exact. Although they start four sophomores, three of them are more experienced than your typical sophomore thanks to ample playing time a year ago.
Yet UIC still started slow. They were 5-10 entering 2018. But when Tarkus Ferguson returned for a Jan. 4 matchup at IUPUI after missing seven games with a foot injury, the Flames became the hottest team in the Horizon League. That’s no coincidence.
Ferguson averaged 9.8 points, 6 rebounds and 5.9 assists the remainder of the season while UIC won 12 of 14 games before the losses to Northern Kentucky and Wright State last weekend. Ferguson’ coaches and teammates credit his success not only to his skill, but also to his basketball IQ and commitment to film study. 
“He really understands what I want now," McClain says. "During the game when things aren't going well, he can make an adjustment where a year ago I would've needed to call a timeout. Now he takes it upon himself whether it's we need to slow it down a bit, or whatever it may be. He sees the game at a different level."
With Ferguson and Odiase’s leadership, wing scorers like Ottey and sophomore Dikembe Dixson, and a handful of role players, UIC is still an underdog in the Horizon League but by a considerably smaller margin than in the past.
The Flames open the Horizon League Tournament with a Saturday quarterfinal against No. 6 seed Milwaukee, whom the Flames swept with two double-digit victories in the regular season. With another win, that could set up a semifinal matchup with No. 2 seed Wright State, against whom UIC fell just short in the regular season finale. The Flames trailed 82-81 at home but were held scoreless in the final two minutes of an 88-81 loss.
Despite getting swept by Wright State and top seed Northern Kentucky, Ottey thinks UIC has made significant progress over the course of the season, specifically on the defensive end, and is ready to take down the leaders.
“There’s always things you can fix,” Ottey says. “But for the most part, I think we’re ready. After a loss like that, you want to win even more. So I think we’ll come out pretty strong.”