We definitely can’t jump to any conclusions after Luke Yaklich’s first year at UIC, especially in what was a weird COVID year that had to hurt first year coaches everywhere. Excuses aside, the first year growth wasn’t there and it’s time for a do-over this year. Yaklich is known for his defense and for whatever reason wasn’t able to transfer that over in the first season. UIC began the season fine and even got to an 8-5 record before everything fell apart and they lost eight of their last nine to finish the year. But there’s reason for optimism after Yaklich finally got a full offseason to work with his team.
Key Losses: Teyvion Kirk, Rob Howard, Braelen Bridges
Key Newcomers: Jalen Warren (Florida Gulf Coast), Kevin Johnson (Nicholls), Brandon Battle (Alabama St.), Damaria Franklin (Tennessee Tech), Marcus Larsson (Incarnate Word), Jace Carter, Filip Skobaji
Michael Diggins returns to man the middle for the Flames. Diggins was on the floor a lot last season; playing in 76.8% of UIC’s minutes. His return is even more important with the departure of Rob Howard. and Braelen Bridges. At just 6’8, 195, Diggins is the biggest post, he’s more of a hybrid. He can stretch the floor (shot 62 3’s last year, although only hit them at 27.4%). 6’6 Zion Griffin will start at the 4. Similar to Diggins, he’s more of a hybrid big as he knocked down 13 of his 34 threes in a lesser role last year. The flames also brought in two low-major transfers in Brandon Battle and Marcus Larsson. Both are more traditional bigs that may fit in better together.
Maurice Commander takes over as the primary ballhandler with Kirk gone. Kirk was the focal point of the offense, but also struggled with turnovers and shot-selection so Commander could be a more effective point guard here. He’s at least more trustworthy with the ball and definitely a better shooter.
Jamie Ahale returns as a 3-point specialist, who should be helped by having more floor spacing around him in Commander and Florida Gulf Coast transfer Jalen Warren. Warren will be aggressive with the ball and can score inside or out. He spent time at both point and off the ball at FGCU last season, but didn’t do a whole lot on the stat sheet besides score.
The backcourt depth will be filled out by returner RayQuawndis Mitchell and transfers Kevin Johnson and Damaria Franklin. Johnson will fit right in with Yaklich’s defensive mind. Johnson average over 2.5 steals per game at Nicholls last year (it is in a press-happy Southland conference, but still noteworthy). Franklin will also bring defense to the Flames and he’s capable of checking multiple positions.
A quick look at the UIC depth chart:
Improving on last year’s 10th place Horizon League finish should happen, but I wouldn’t expect a significant jump. The general consensus is a middle of the pack 7th place finish. Yaklich wants to build this team on defense with three main principles; contest every shot, take away the three and work hard on being 1-on-1 defenders.
The Flames open the season at Dayton on November 9th.