I’m ranking and previewing the nine teams of the Horizon League leading up to the start of the 2012-2013 season. Rankings are based on a host of tempo-free and other factors. I invite your take in the comments section below.
Last season: The Flames had major growing pains in head coach Howard Moore’s second season that included his first recruiting class. The 2011-2012 team included 10 new faces and just one returning starter. They finished 8-22 with three Horizon League wins that put them in ninth place to end the season.
The team finished the year ranked eighth in offensive efficiency (0.942 points scored per possession) and last in the league in defensive efficiency (1.049 ppp).
This season: UIC’s revolving door keeps spinning as Moore works to fill out his roster. This season the team welcomes eight new faces, but returns four starters that will have to fight with some quality transfers to keep their jobs. Depth is finally a thing at UIC.
Coach: Moore (15-46) has had excuses the last two seasons. He accepted his position in late August 2010, giving him a late start on his rookie season as a head coach that ended with a disappointing seven wins. Last season he was dealing with former head coach Jimmy Collins’ leftover recruits and tried unsuccessfully to mold them to fit his system.
This season Moore has no excuses. The recruits are his, the starters are his, the system is his and the team is his. Another failed season will certainly put Moore on the hot seat.
Returning minutes: 64.71% (4th) Returning possessions: 69.56% (3rd) Returning scoring: 64.57% (4th) Returning starters: 4
1. Gary Talton (30 games/26 starts/0.94 points per possession last season) - After warming to the role, Talton proved himself as a scrappy, driving point guard and soon was the full-time starter last season. The senior was selected to the Horizon League All-Newcomer team last season as a JUCO transfer.
Talton is No. 1 among all Horizon League returners in assist rate. He dished an assist in 27.3 percent of his possessions last season, behind only Butler’s Ron Nored and Milwaukee’s Kaylon Williams. He also notched a decent 1.2 assist to turnover ratio and drilled 78 of 90 free throws.
2. Hayden Humes (30/24/1.18) - Humes played a unique role in Moore’s offense last season. As a sophomore transfer from Toledo University, the 6-8 wing was a low possession player that was clutch from range. His 55.5 percent effective field goal rate led his team.
3. Daniel Barnes (30/26/1.03) - Barnes started in the traditional two-spot in Moore’s system last season. The 6-2 Chicago native played more minutes than any other UIC player (he was on the floor for 78 percent of the season’s minutes), and he attempted a lot (200) of three-point shots that fell at a 32.0 percent clip (fifth among HL players). In fact, 61.7 percent of Barnes’ points last season came from range, a figure that ranked third in the Horizon League. He also won the Flames’ recent three-point contest at the Red vs. Blue scrimmage.
4. Marc Brown (30/26/0.54) - Starting as a true freshman last season, Brown had some trying moments. He also shows some real flashes. The 6-4 guard played in the three-slot and played probably his best game in the post where he showed off his basketball IQ to get to the stripe at a decently high rate.
1. Darrin Williams (30/27) - The Flames’ towering 6-9 center was one of the few remaining holdovers from Jimmy Collins’ final recruiting class. UIC needed his board-grabbing frame last season, but could have done without all the fouls called against him. Senior transfer Josh Crittle is a no-brainer to take over the open role.
2. Paris Carter (30/8) - Carter, another holdout from the Collins era, was tough for the Flames in the post last season, but he’s replaceable.
1. Josh Crittle - When the University of Central Florida was hit with a postseason ban from the NCAA for violations following last season, Crittle (6-9) made the choice to return home and was granted immediate eligibility to play for the Flames. He’s a true center that started 25 games for the Knights last season alongside Marcus Jordan.
If Crittle can keep his fouls under control — he averaged seven fouls per 40 minutes last season — he should be a force on the boards.
2. Joey Miller - Miller (6-3) is a versatile combo guard that can play the one, two or even three spot and could cause some defensive mismatches. He started 24 games last season at Eastern Illinois where he played for his father, Mike Miller, before the elder Miller was relieved of his duties at the end of the season.
Joey set the single-game scoring record for an EIU freshman with a 28-point showing against Tennessee-Martin last season. He brings depth and versatility to the UIC backcourt.
3. Matt Gorski - A former three-star recruit out of high school and the nation’s 26th-ranked center, Gorski (7-0) committed to UIC out of prep school after drawing interest from Hofstra and UAB. Considering Crittle averaged under 18 minutes per game last season at UCF, Gorski and sophomore Will Simonton could see plenty of minutes off the bench this season.
Projected starting five: Gary Talton (PG), Daniel Barnes (SG), Marc Brown (G/SF) Hayden Humes (PF), Josh Crittle (C)
Marquee matchups (full schedule here):
1. Colorado State, Dec. 8 - The Rams are one of the top teams in a stacked Mountain West Conference. After appearing in the NCAA tournament last season, CSU returns five of their top six scorers, four starters and All-MWC guard Wes Eikmeier.
2. At Northwestern, Dec. 1 - Not since the 2005-2006 season have the Flames traveled to Evanston to face their Big Ten rival in Chicago. This will be a big battle in the front court as both teams bring a lot of size to the table.
3. UC-Riverside, Nov. 11 - First of all, this is an intriguingl mid-major matchup the likes of which is usually reserved for BracketBuster play. The Highlanders (No. 284) were ranked just six spots higher than UIC (290) in Ken Pomeroy’s season-ending team rankings and return just one starter.
Secondly, Miller’s father, the former head coach at Eastern Illinois, is now an assistant coach at UC-Riverside. Joey will be playing against and not for his father for the first time. I bet that’s how this one got on the schedule.
1. Overall depth. The Flames ranked 307th in the nation last season in bench minutes. Barnes (78 percent), Humes (76.4) and Talton (76.1) all were ranked among the top 500 minute-earners in the nation. This year they’ll have the confidence and support of a bench that isn’t mostly composed of freshman or first-year players. Miller, Simonton, Gorski, sophomore guard Jay parker and freshman Jake Wiegand bring lots of depth.
2. Talton’s development. Not since Spencer Stewart have the Flames had a pure point guard running the show that can dish assists with the league’s best PGs.
3. Pressure. Moore’s seat is getting warm, and his players must feel the pressure to perform. Afterall, with this recruiting class, this Flames team is 100 percent Moore-fashioned. The swing offense better be second nature at this point.
1. Shooting. UIC was 10th and seventh respectively in 2-point and 3-point shooting last season in the Horizon League.
2. Tempo. Not since Ken Pomeroy started keeping track — back in 2002 — have the Flames played as slowly as they did last season. Averaging 64.9 possessions per game can have its advantages, but moreso it shows a lack of offensive direction and opponents will have no problem keeping pace. The average pace for D-I teams last season was 66.1 ppg.
3. Turnovers/Turnover creation. UIC ranked dead last in creating turnovers last season, and was seventh in giving up TOs. Most of the worst offenders are gone, but Talton could tighten his game a little.
It’s showtime at the Pavilion.
With so many minutes, possessions and scoring back, and with so many pieces coming in to fill in the gaps, and with so many tough roster cuts made, I had no problem ranking the Flames at No. 6. The ingredients are there, now it’s in the Moore’s hands to fine tune the recipe and squeeze the most out of this solid squad.