CHICAGO – Ranked to finish in eighth place by voters in the Horizon League preseason poll, UIC sits firmly atop the early standings with a 7-1 record after a 38-point win over Roosevelt University on Wednesday night.
“The key in that game was just keeping the same mental approach no matter what school we’re playing or what division a school is from,” Flames head coach Howard Moore said after the win. “We just stick with what we’re doing and continue to play good, solid defense and making sure our guys were focused on playing within our principles.”
And, yes, Roosevelt is a NAIA school, but don’t let that discount the hot start of the Flames. Just eight games into the season, UIC has already beaten the likes of 2012 NCAA Tournament participant Iona, Atlantic Sun favorite Mercer and Big Ten inter-city rival Northwestern. In fact, the only loss suffered so far this season came at the hands of New Mexico – which went on to eventually win the Paradise Jam after a single-digit defeat of the Flames in the tournament’s opening round – but UIC recovered quickly to beat Mercer and Iona, respectively.
“We didn’t have a lot of time to focus on why we lost, why we didn’t get it done,” Moore said. “We had to focus right away on Mercer. I really like the approach we took in the game, to shut down a good team and hold them to only 36 points.”
There’s no question that the wins say more than the loss, or that defense has been key. Five times this season, UIC has held an opponent under 50 points, including in Evanston, where the Flames were able to grind out a big 50-44 road win against the Wildcats.
The win got that much more impressive when Northwestern went on the road and beat Baylor, a team that had just picked up a road win over defending national champion Kentucky.
“I think it says a lot about our team, but also just about the state of college basketball: on any given night, you can win,” Moore said of the win over Northwestern. “Our players did a good job of sticking with the scouting report and following the assistant coaches’ directions on what we want to do defensively and then we made some plays down the stretch to win. It just says that our team is really locked in on what this coaching staff requires of them.”
UIC isn’t the only Windy City team sitting pretty in the Horizon League rankings early on, however. At 6-2, Loyola is currently in a three-way tie with Valparaiso and Cleveland State for the No. 2 spot.
This comes after the Ramblers went 7-23 last season and were picked to finish seventh in the preseason poll.
Now in his second season, head coach Porter Moser recognizes that developing a program takes time. But that doesn’t mean he is not enjoying his team’s early-season success while also looking to the future.
“We have to improve in a lot of areas,” Moser said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “That’s what excites me, actually. We are fortunate enough to get off to a decent start, but I feel like our spectrum of improvement is huge.”
If the win over Mercer was UIC’s pivotal moment so far this year, Loyola’s came in the form of a win over Maryland-Eastern Shore in the USF Invitational. Half a day after suffering a defeat at the hands of the host Bulls – a second-straight loss – Moser saw his players regroup and refocus for a 16-point win that helped turn the tide for the Ramblers.
“It was a gut-check game. We left the arena at 10:30 Saturday night and we were back in the arena at 10:30 on Sunday morning – just 12 hours later,” Moser recalled. “Sometimes young kids focus on circumstances instead of goals. But that was the good thing about our kids: they didn’t focus on the circumstances, they weren’t thinking, ‘Hey, we were just here 12 hours ago, we’re dead tired.’ They gutted it out. It was really good on a lot of fronts.”
Including that game, Loyola has won four straight – including a road win over Northern Illinois. An impressive stretch, no doubt, but overshadowed by UIC, which has put together a six-game winning streak. There are no hard feelings, however; Moser knows that the success the Flames have shown under third-year coach Moore bodes well for the Horizon League and the city of Chicago, both of which have direct influence on Moser’s own program.
“They’re off to a great start, and with Howard, I know they’re doing it the right way, too, building guys and playing the right way,” Moser said. “And even when UIC hadn’t won games, they were doing things the right way, and that’s how you knew Howard was going to turn it. I’m nothing but happy for Howard because he’s one of the good guys and he’s worked unbelievably hard.”
The feeling, it seems, is mutual. Moore is excited about what a pair of winning Windy City programs can mean in the future.
“It’s good for Chicago basketball; it’s good for the Horizon League. It’s the biggest market, it’s a market that deserves to have a lot of attention and it hasn’t had it so far,” Moore said. “But there’s no whining about it, we just have to go out there and play our butts off and earn that respect. This is an important market for the Horizon League. There is good coaching, there are good programs and once we take care of our business on the court, [the respect factor] will take care of itself.”
For the Horizon League, perhaps the greatest aspect of mutual success for UIC and Loyola is that it creates a better rivalry. While both the Flames and the Ramblers want to do well in Chicago and for the League, both programs want to win, as well.
“Make no mistake – as much as I’m happy for [Moore], we’re still competing against them,” Moser said. “We both want to step our games up in Chicago. Chicago is ripe – it’s one of the best basketball cities in the country. There was not one team from Illinois in the NCAA Tournament last year, so we’re all scrapping and clawing and trying to build our programs up. We’re in this area that is one of the best sports towns in the country, one of the best breeding grounds for student-athletes and we all want to step our game up.”
The feeling, again, is mutual. Moore’s team wants to prove wrong that eighth-place preseason ranking. UIC’s early-season success, combined with a tough schedule, could set the stage for the Flames to make a legitimate run at a Horizon League title.
“We’ve got a very big chip on our shoulder,” Moore said. “We’re going to do what we need to do and prepare ourselves for the Horizon League season and then we’ll go out there and let our game do the talking for us.”