By Eli Hershkovich–
(CBS) When Steve McClain was an assistant with Indiana men’s basketball from 2010-’15, the Hoosiers finished 14th or higher nationally in scoring offense in three of those five seasons. Now entering his third campaign as the coach of Illinois-Chicago, McClain believes he finally has the tools to replicate a similar offensive attack.
“One thing we did at Indiana was create opportunities for everyone, a system that’s not built for one guy,” McClain said. “I’ve tried to incorporate that (at UIC). We’ve tried to play faster, and hopefully this year we finally can.”
During Indiana’s run to the Sweet 16 as a No. 1 seed in the 2013 NCAA Tournament, it possessed five players who averaged at least 9.5 points per game. Last season, UIC had six players who produced at least 9.3 points per game, and all of them are back for the 2017-’18 campaign.
The Flames are led by sophomore forward Dikembe Dixson, who averaged a team-high 20.3 points and 6.8 rebounds last season. But his season was cut quite short when he suffered a torn ACL on Dec. 14. UIC struggled running its offense without its main centerpiece, placing 229th in the country in offensive efficiency with 0.985 points per possession.
The 6-foot-7, 200-pound Dixson is back for his third season at UIC and has received a hardship waiver from the NCAA, which grants him an extra year of eligibility. He said he has now rehabbed his knee back to full strength, doing plenty of conditioning via squats, among other workouts.
McClain also stressed how he pushed Dixon to evolve into a more efficient scorer amid his recovery, along with playing without the ball. From his freshman campaign in 2015-’16 to his injury-shortened one, Dixson has become more patient offensively, increasing his field goal percentage from 36.9 to 47.7 percent. If he continues at that rate, his teammates will benefit, McClain said.
“We put you (opponents) in a position defensively, you’re gonna have to make choices of who you’re going to help off of,” McClain said. “If you help off the wrong guy, someone’s gonna have a big night.”
McClain and his coaching staff facilitate conditioning sessions following each practice in attempt to generate a run and gun offense, forward Tai Odiase said. But it’s because their personnel fits the mold.
“He’s definitely the most energetic coach I’ve ever had,” Odiase said. “He’s more skill-oriented, trying to expand our game, so that when we get out there, we play to the best of our abilities.”
The 6-9, 220-pound Odiase has worked on improving his game from the low post, as well refining his midrange jumper. Last season, he finished second on the Flames in scoring (11.4 ppg) and notched 6.9 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game.
Odiase is one of three upperclassmen on the roster, which includes six sophomores and three freshmen. McClain cited their inexperience from a season ago as to why the Flames were unable to consistently compete in second halves. In fact, it was the youngest roster in the country.
Overall, the Flames finished with a 17-19 record, including a 7-11 mark in the Horizon League. Entering this season, they placed third in the 2017-18 preseason poll. Perennial contender Valparaiso has departed for the Missouri Valley, but Dixson believes UIC could contend for a conference title either way.
“I wish Valpo didn’t leave because I wanted to beat ’em at least one time,” Dixson laughed. “Stuff didn’t happen that way. I think we have a shot this year if everybody plays hard, and we work as a team.”
For McClain, one season of contention isn’t enough, he said. He’s aiming to sustain a winner on Chicago’s Near West Side.
“We perennially are a team that should be picked one, two, three or four in this league,” McClain said. “That’s the expectation now.”
Eli Hershkovich is a producer at 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @EliHershkovich.