Illinois-Chicago sixth-year coach Mike Dee is rebuilding after the Flames went 35-21 and won the Horizon League title last season. They'll try to get on track this weekend in a three-game series against the No. 19 Razorbacks (9-1) in Baum Stadium. Today's first pitch is scheduled for 2:35 p.m.
"We're searching a little bit but we're still going to play hard like we always do," Dee said. "We've got three returners, but they're playing in different positions because of injuries or things along those lines. That's made it a little bit awkward for us early, but I think that down the road, we're going to be a pretty good ballclub."
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn believes his team is "pretty good" now, but needs to improve with only seven games and two weeks remaining before Southeastern Conference play begins at South Carolina.
Departed Flames' left-hander Ryan Haenel pitched a one-hitter for eight innings to beat Arkansas 9-1 and split last year's series. It was one of only four games the Hogs lost by eight runs or more with the others coming at Florida (11-1 loss), against South Carolina (10-2) and against Texas (13-2) in the College World Series.
The Hogs won't have to deal with many southpaws this weekend as all three probable starters are right-handers, none shorter than 6-foot-5.
" They've got a bunch of big kids up there, I guess they grow them that way," Van Horn said.
ICU's Ryan Zink, a 6-5, 210-pounder, will start today against Hogs freshman left-hander Nick Schmidt, who's 6-4, 220. They'll set the stage for a weekend of big-bodied starters.
Saturday will pit ICU's Jason Foster (6-5, 195) against Hogs veteran Charley Boyce (6-0, 200) while Sunday's starters are slated to be ICU freshman Travis Kempf (6-7, 195) against Hogs sophomore Josh Smith (6-2, 225).
"All three of our guys are similar in terms of their approach," Dee said. "They're going to throw a lot of strikes and get after hitters. They aren't cutesy, dance-around-the-strike-zone guys. That's just not their style and not their strength.
"This will be a great challenge for all three of them."
Dee's philosophy is for his team to play as tough of a nonconference schedule as possible. In 2007, the Flames are scheduled to play their first 15 games against teams from the SEC.
Despite this season's slow start, which includes close losses to Michigan and Evansville, they're still expected to win the Verizon League title.
"I'm under the opinion that if you want your players to play well, they've got to play against the best," Dee said. "They learn and find out what they need to do in order to compete against those people and that's important for young players.
"Like this weekend, your going to find out very quickly what things your team is not doing particularly well or needs to do at a higher level when you play a team like Arkansas."
Arkansas hasn't hit its stride yet according to Van Horn. The defense has been superb, the pitching is deeper and the offense has scored enough runs to win even without several key cogs hitting consistently.
"Our offense does a good job of coming up with the big hit or coming up with the big inning to give us a chance to win," Van Horn said. "Our offense is going to get better. We've got some guys with experience that we know are going to hit better than they're hitting. We haven't really put a lineup out there that's had 6 or 7 guys swing the bat all in the same day and were still winning games.
"But I know that those days are coming and hopefully, they'll come right around conference time."
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