Kreps keeping his head up

Robo Kreps could easily pass off his own struggles along with those of the Illinois-Chicago basketball team if he wanted to this season.

There are plenty of reasonable excuses. For one, the Flames graduated their star player, Josh Mayo, and their top rebounder, Scott VanderMeer, from last season. There's also the fact that five players, all of whom were expected to contribute, left the program before the season began. Lastly, Kreps was without his backcourt mate, Spencer Stewart, who is the team's only other returning starter, for five games due to suspension.

None of them is satisfactory for Kreps, though. Whether it is fair or not, the only person he blames for the Flames' 5-12 record and his career-worst .343 shooting percentage is himself.

"I feel like we go as I go," said Kreps, who is averaging 15.1 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.1 assists. "If I'm not playing well, our chances of winning are slim. If I'm playing well, our chances are better. When we lose, I take a lot of the blame. I'm the guy everyone looks to. I'm the guy on the posters."

After Mayo's graduation, Kreps, a 6-foot junior guard, became the face of the Flames. That was going to be the case even if UIC had everyone back this season. Kreps was Mayo's sidekick last season, and it was the natural progression for him to take over the squad.

But when the Flames discovered everyone else was leaving, too, Kreps was thrust into an even larger role.

"He was one of those guys I was counting on to be a winner," UIC coach Jimmy Collins said. "He definitely needed to do more. I was counting on him not only to score, but also be a leader and get people more involved. That's a lot to ask of a person."

It is, and accordingly, the results of those requests have varied.

Kreps has had games where he's been able to be all UIC needs him to be. He scored 25 points, grabbed 9 rebounds and dished out 2 assists in a win over Northern Illinois. He put up a career-high 31 points, which included an 18-for-18 performance from the free throw line, to beat Detroit. He had 20 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists and no turnovers against Toledo.

In all five of UIC's wins, Kreps has played a major part. On the other hand, Kreps has had a number of nights where he's struggled, and UIC has lost. He shot 2-of-10 and scored five points against Wright State in a recent defeat. Cleveland State held him to four points. He shot a combined 5-for-29 against Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Wisconsin-Green Bay earlier in the season.

Opponents have had a lot to do with Kreps' inconsistencies. Defenses have been designed solely to stop him. With the rest of the lineup full of youth and inexperience, opposing coaches are forcing everyone other than Kreps to beat them instead.

Kreps doesn't want to hear about that either. In his eyes, there's no justifiable reason for him to be shooting so horribly. In his first two collegiate years, he's shot well above 40 percent.

"I've never shot 30 percent," Kreps said. "I could say it's because I'm taking tougher shots, but I'm a shooter, and I expect more out of myself. I can't tell you what's wrong. The ball just isn't going into the basket. It's right there. It's either short or long. I may be thinking about it too much."

What Kreps also has had on his mind are his critics. He doesn't mind having them there, either. Ever since he was a kid growing up in Forsyth, a central Illinois town of about 3,000 people, he's always felt his basketball ability was in question.

"People thought another kid was the best player in my conference in grade school," said Kreps, who is called Robert only by his dad when he's upset with him.

The doubters followed him at Maroa-Forsyth High School, where he was an all-stater, and they followed him when he chose to attend UIC. He read on Web sites that people said he wasn't good enough to play Division I basketball, and he was going to the Flames only because his father, Dave Kreps, had been a graduate assistant at Illinois while Collins was an assistant at Illinois.

Kreps' freshman (8.1 points) and sophomore (12.3 points) seasons at UIC proved he belongs, but that was something Collins knew a long time ago.

"His work ethic was the first thing I noticed about him," Collins said. "He works all the time. He's hungry. He has a burning desire. Basketball is a game that it really doesn't matter where you play coming up in high school. What matters is the level you aspire to play on. He's a kid who could have played in any division and in any city because he works so hard, and he loves to play so much."

Despite that, Kreps is still driven by his naysayers. There's a list of knocks they have on him, and he's trying to check each one off.

"Some people want to label me as a shooter," Kreps said. "That's false. I'm a scorer. I can drive or I wouldn't be getting a lot of the points I am now. I want people to say we can't stop Robo. He's going to get his no matter what."

It's a mission that Kreps will be on this week as the Flames host Valparaiso on Thursday and Butler on Saturday. Even though UIC is out of the hunt to win the regular-season Horizon League title, Kreps believes there is always a chance to make a special run during the conference tournament and find a way into the NCAA tournament.

"Everyone's goal is to get to the NCAA tournament," Kreps said. "I'd rather have this season now and make the NCAA tournament than have last year's season. As right of now, we're getting better.

"This is a must-win game for us against Valparaiso," Kreps added. "It's a game we can win. Butler is a game to see where we are at. My past two years we've played Butler extremely close at UIC. Those are games we should have won."

Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at spowers@espnchicago.com.