Illinois-Chicago has a history of being a strong program, having been to the NCAA Tournament three of the past seven years. The Flames (5-5) will be Akron's opponent Saturday at 4 p.m. in Chicago.
They return four starters and five reserves from a 16-15 team that beat Mississippi and Georgia Tech but struggled through a six-game losing streak in the middle of last season.
Here is how the starting five breaks down...
- Spencer Stewart, a 6-foot-4 freshman point guard, leads the team with 3.1 assists per game. He is a respectable threat to score from 3-point land, but not much else.
- Josh Mayo, a 5-10 sophomore guard, has the ability to score a ton. He dropped 26 points in a loss to Davidson. An injury thrust Mayo into a starting role last season, and coach Jimmy Collins was pleased with his ability to run the team. Mayo and Stewart both can play point guard. Collins said they're both smart players.
- Othyus Jeffers, a 6-5 junior swingman, has led the team with 15.2 points, 8.7 rebounds and 32.1 minutes per game. Also a decent defender, Jeffers is the Flames' best player.
- Jovan Stefanov, a 6-9 power forward from Serbia, averages 10 points and six rebounds a game.
- Scott VanderMeer, a 6-11 center, averages 4.2 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.4 blocks a game. VanderMeer sat out last season after transferring from Bowling Green, where he played 9.7 minutes per game as a freshman.
Collins uses a 10-man rotation of players who can all expect to play at least 15 minutes per game. Depth is certainly a strength, and that should help the Flames once they enter the Horizon League portion of their schedule.
Other important cogs include...
- Junior guard T.J. Gray, a transfer from Western Illinois, who is averaging 8.8 points per game.
- Senior forward Danijel Zoric, another Serbian player, who chips in 5.2 points and 2.5 rebounds a game. He was a starter last season.
- Junior guard Karl White puts up similar stats to Zoric. He is a defensive role player.
This season, the Flames have struggled at rebounding and defense. Opposing teams have been able to cash in on second-chance points. Coach Collins also mentioned the team needs to close out on 3-point shooters better.
Illinois-Chicago is much better than a 5-5 team. The Flames are beatable, but the Zips won't do it by playing like they did against Winston-Salem State. Coach Keith Dambrot rarely allows his team to play sloppy on consecutive nights. I won't make a prediction just yet, but I think Akron will win as long as Nate Linhart and the guards can limit Jeffers and Mayo from having huge games.
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