The University of Illinois--Chicago basketball team changed coaches late summer, giving Howard Moore precious little time to install his system and build a team. Illinois is heavily favored over its sister school Saturday.
However, that doesn't take away the excitement Illini players feel for playing in the United Center, home of the Chicago Bulls. It has seen multiple championships and showcased many of the best players in the history of the game. The Illini are looking forward to the game.
"We're gonna be pumped to play in the United Center," senior guard Demetri McCamey states. "It's good for our boys to play on that court every opportunity, so they will give their best effort whether we play a good team or a bad team. It's the United Center, the House That Mike (Jordan) Built."
McCamey is no stranger to the court.
"It's great. I've been playing there since high school. It's a tradition to win championships on that court, and Michael Jordan, the greatest player, played on that court. It makes you want to step up your game. This is the last time in my college career I'll be playing in the United Center, so I want to make the best of it."
Sophomore guard D.J. Richardson feels the same way. All college players dream of a pro career, so playing in an NBA arena helps them feel closer to that possible future.
"It's special. This is my second time playing up there and my third NBA arena. It's always fun."
Freshman wing Jereme Richmond claims the United Center holds no special meaning. It's closer to home, so he's glad his family can come to the game. But he admits it's a unique opportunity.
"I'm looking forward to it. We went to Seattle and played in the Seattle Arena, and now the United Center. I played there once freshman year with Country Day. We got smacked by 20, so I'm looking forward to getting back there and getting a victory."
Illinois coach Bruce Weber empathizes with Moore's plight in his new job. He experienced a similar situation with his first head coaching job.
"I think he's done a nice job. When you think about when he got the job, late August, they had to get right into workouts. I think it compares a little bit to like when I took Southern (Illinois)."
Moore worked a number of years under Wisconsin's Bo Ryan and brings many of those offensive and defensive principles to his new team. Weber provides a synopsis of the 4-7 Flames.
"The guys have really bought into him, the system and the changes. They're playing hard for him and trying to execute. They're a little undermanned, especially depth-wise. They're 5-6 guys are fine, but it seems after that they don't have the numbers to keep coming at you.
"They run the swing, but he's got a couple tweaks in it. They press a little bit and play a little zone, which Bo would never do. Offensively, Bo runs the swing, but also different sets that he uses. Howard's been using those and adds a few of his own too.
"He's got to work very hard to help his guys manufacture points, so he's trying to tweak certain things to help his guys get a basket. Some of the scores are a little bit low. Like my early teams at Southern, you had to fight for every basket."
The Flames are led by senior Robert "Robo" Kreps (6'-1", 200). The hot-shooting Maroa-Forsyth product is averaging 15.5 points a game and has 41 assists and 16 steals in 11 games. Weber knows him well.
"He's come and played with our guys in the summer. We've followed his career. Obviously a great shooter. He's been up and down this year, mainly because he's got to do so many things for them. I don't think he has his weapons around him. He's getting them into their offense, he's just doing a lot. So it's maybe taking a little away from his scoring.
"At the same time, he's the guy that gets baskets for you. He gets hot from three; he has a history where he makes a bunch in a row. He's had some poor shooting games this year and is still shooting 37% from three. That's pretty good in anybody's book. He's a great free throw shooter and leads them in assists. He basically leads them in every category."
The other starters are juniors Paul Carter (6'-8", 200), Zavion Neely (6'-1", 177), Darrin Williams (6'-9", 282) and Paris Carter (6'-7", 230). Paul Carter, the Minnesota transfer, averages 14.5 points and 8.1 rebounds a game. Neely averages just under 10 points a game and has 21 assists on the year. Others who see playing time include seniors Brad Birton (6'-7", 192) and K.C. Robbins (6'-11", 278).
The one concern for Illinois is taking the Flames lightly. Barring that, there should be opportunities for reserves Tyler Griffey, Crandall Head and Joseph Bertrand to get valuable playing time. And it will be a chance for the Illini to work on their weaknesses in game conditions. Weber points out two areas that need special emphasis.
"We've still got to do better on our own half court offense. That and blockout are our two major concerns we have to make some improvement in."
Weber says Meyers Leonard, who sat out the Northern Colorado game to rest a strained shoulder, should be ready to go Saturday. He and his fellow freshmen can benefit from the work.
"He practiced, he's better. When he gets tangled up the shoulder hurts a little bit and he grimaces. I think by Saturday he should be fine unless he gets tangled up the wrong way. He's still in our plans and is a key to us. We need him to pick it up.
"Like with the other young guys, it's not just games. It's every day, every practice. That's how you take yourself to another level. Especially with him. All the freshmen are done with finals now. Hopefully this is the time the lights go on and they raise their games to another level."
Richmond is taking a business-like approach to the encounter.
"We're just looking forward to getting another 'W.' Right now we're having trouble putting teams away, so it would be a confidence-booster for us to go up there and get a victory."
The Illini have a 10-1 record with games against UIC and Missouri in St. Louis preceding the rugged Big 10 schedule. McCamey hopes the Illini can set the tone Saturday and establish a precedent for the rest of the season.
"We've just got to be mentally tough. We've done good so far in the nonconference, and now we have to have even more focus, intensity and toughness as far as rebounding and guarding in the Big 10."