These UIC games at the United Center irritate me.
The apparent value of Illinois playing in a cool venue like the UC is all but negated when you're forced to go against a subpar Horizon League school every three years. That Chicago-area fans show up in droves for this game speaks for the zeal of the Illini fanbase.
But consider the abundance of negatives, even this year:
- There's little upside to winning and all downside if we lose. I shudder to think how we pulled off making the NCAA Tournament in 2011 after the stinkbomb of losing to a UIC team that eventually finished 2-16 in Horizon League play that year.
- With the Illini on the verge of Big Ten conference play, Saturday's game will double as a harrowing exercise in avoiding an injury to one of our starters. I know living in fear of injury is no way to go about your daily routine, but Saturday is another 40 minutes of increased exertion that could lead to Tracy Abrams breaking an ankle or Rayvonte Rice blowing out his knee. If one of the rotation players go down in a game that had relatively no impact on the season, wouldn't it seem like a bigger loss?
- It also poses a problem for the game after this one, the Big Ten opener against Indiana. Illinois will have only two days to prepare for that game on New Year's Eve, whereas Indiana will have a full eight days since its last game to prepare for us. Normally, I'd take John Groce's prep over Psycho Crean's prep any game, but that's a big disparity in time-off and scouting.
- More than anything, our presence at the United Center pales when compared to the last college basketball showcase in that building: Kentucky vs. Michigan State and Kansas vs. Duke. Those are programs we strive to be in the same breath as, an echelon we approached in the early 2000s. Every high-profile basketball recruit in the nation was watching those games. I don't even think Fighting Illini commit Michael Finke will get a chance to watch Illinois on Saturday with all of the holiday tournaments in progress right now.
In short, if we're going to show out at the United Center, it needs to be against a good program with name recognition.
Tangent aside, my preview for the actual game is brief. The Flames sport a 5-8 record this season and a KenPom ranking of No. 274 out of 351 Division-I teams, putting them slightly higher than our worse competition this year in Jacksonville St. (No. 296) and Chicago St. (No. 300).
UIC's star is former Big Ten foe Kelsey Barlow, who was kicked off Purdue's team in 2012 following an incident at a campus bar. I wouldn't go so far as to call him an Illini killer, but his penultimate game against Illinois saw him score 14 points on 50 percent shooting from the field. (If you recall, that was the debacle in West Lafayette during the same day our football team won in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.)
Barlow deserves some respect: he's got size at 6-foot-5 and scored 20 points in only 20 minutes of play in UIC's last game against Colorado St. But his downside also crops up in that stat. He played 20 minutes against Colorado St. because of foul trouble, and that's happened on a couple occasions this season. Barlow might get his, but he's child's play compared to Mizzou's guards.
One other quirk of this team is that UIC head coach Howard Moore deploys an 11-to-12-man rotation. At least 12 guys log over 10 minutes on the team, for reasons mostly unknown.
The real incentive to watch this game: blow 'em out quick so UIC bench player Hans Christian Lauer sees the court.