Team preview: Illinois-Chicago

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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)

If bigger turns out to be better, get out of the way. Nobody in the Horizon League -- or most any league -- can look Illinois-Chicago eye to eye this winter. The Flames will suit up 11 players taller than 6-foot-4 and, get this, six players taller than 6-7. If veteran coach Jimmy Collins took a notion, he could start a point guard and four guys 6-9 or taller.

Don't look for the Flames to go that big, but you get the idea.

"At times we're going to go big and at times we're going to go smaller," Collins said. "It's a matter of how quickly guys adjust to each other and to the style of play I want to play."

Looking back, last season was something of a roller-coaster ride. An early-season loss to Saint Xavier -- the little one from Chicago, not the big one in Cincinnati -- was a bad omen, and yet next game out the Flames routed Georgia Tech, 73-51, and later beat Ole Miss and Northwestern. Two other non-conference wins of note came at the expense of NCAA Tournament entries San Diego State and Davidson. UIC won its Horizon opener but then went into a six-game league tailspin that doomed the season. But the Flames didn't play like they were doomed, winning seven of their final 10 league games to finish 8-8.

Scoring wasn't a problem, but at times defending was. And so were dismal three-point shooting and a poor turnover margin. Those are areas Collins has to address to get UIC back into what appears to be a wide-open conference race.

Leading scorer Justin Bowen (14.7 ppg) must be replaced, but Collins will have a deep roster with which to attack the new season. Six of the top eight scorers return and two Division I transfers join the mix after sitting out a red-shirt season.

The other significant loss is post Elliott Poole (7.3 ppg), but the Flames were forced to make that adjustment when Poole became academically ineligible after 14 games last season.

Two of the returnees made the league's all-newcomer team last year and one of them, junior swingman Othyus Jeffers (11.6 ppg, 7.6 rpg) was the Horizon League Newcomer of the Year. Jeffers is a 6-5 bull who came home to Chicago after one season of junior-college ball in Los Angeles. Jeffers had some interesting numbers. He got his points without attempting a single three-point shot and also led UIC in assists (92). He scored in double figures 21 times and recorded 11 double-doubles. If only he could boost his free-throw percentage (.530), he might really be dangerous. This summer Jeffers worked to add a jump shot to his repertoire so defenses can't back off and dare him to shoot.

But is he a guard or a forward?

"I just call him a player," Collins said. "I play him at the one, two or three and depending on who's guarding him, I might run him into the paint, too. We'll play him like an Adrian Dantley.

"He's very unselfish but I want to encourage him to think about his offense. When he comes to play, not a whole lot of guys can stop him from doing the things he does well."

The other all-newcomer was 5-10 sophomore point guard Josh Mayo (10.1 ppg, 1.8 rpg). Mayo quickly broke into the starting lineup as a freshman and became the team's No. 3 scorer. Mayo also turned out to be UIC's leading three-point shooter, (.353, 51-of-145). Mayo's three-point shooting picked up late in the season and the hope is he'll continue that trend as a sophomore. Mayo is also an excellent free-throw shooter.

Playing a lot of point guard was new to Mayo last year, and he may not have to do as much of it this season, given there will be several other options.

"We had guys get hurt last year and that gave Josh an opportunity to get his feet, knees and hips wet," Collins said. "He did a tremendous job of making the adjustment to running the ball club. Hopefully, this year we can take the ball out of Josh's hands a little more and give him the opportunity to score."