Team preview: Illinois-Chicago

Blue Ribbon Illustrated previews the 2005-06 college basketball season, exclusively on Insider.

Updated: October 25, 2005, 12:53 PM ET
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Editor's Note: ESPN Insider has teamed with Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook to provide a comprehensive look at all 326 Division I teams. To order the complete 25th anniversary edition of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, visit www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).

(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)

COACH AND PROGRAM

Transition is the word at Illinois-Chicago this winter and we're not just talking about converting a turnover into a dunk.

Out with the old, in with the newnewcomers, that is. The Flames won a lot of games and scaled a lot of heights during the reign of Cedric Banks, Martell Bailey, Aaron Carr and Armond Williams. Bailey and Carr left at the end of the 2003-04 season and now, a year later, the prolific Banks and workhorse Williams are also gone.

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As evidenced by last year's slip from 24 wins to 15 and only a .500 record in the conference, UIC missed Bailey's playmaking and leadership. Now it must replace Banks (18.7 ppg) as the go-to scorer and locker room leader.

However, if you're thinking veteran coach Jimmy Collins is suffering from depression, you're wrong. Quite the contrary, in fact. "We've got a whole bunch of new guys,'' Collins said, "a bunch of 'em, and that ain't a bad thing. ... Sometimes it's good to wipe the slate relatively clean and get some new attitude.''

The attitude of last year's team is a slate that needed wiping, Collins said. "I should have got coach of the year for going 15-14. Not because of the guys who had experience, but the overall attitude of that team was not conducive to winning. People had some agendas that did not fit the team concept. We won 15 games where we could have easily only won 11 with the attitude problems we had on that team.

"I'm going to fall short of saying we're going to have a great year this year but I'll tell you one thingwin, lose or draw this is going to be a fun year for our coaching staff.''

PLAYERS

UIC welcomes as many as nine newcomers this year, although freshman forward Lance Young and Bowling Green transfer center Scott VanderMeer will have to red-shirt.

Gone are starters Banks and Williams (10.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg), both members of the Horizon League All-Defensive team. Two other players who opened the season with the Flames left during the course of the year -- center Josip Petrusic and guard Marceatteaus McGee. Banks, who signed a pro contract with a French team, leaves big shoes to fill. He attempted 221 three-pointers last year and was unquestionably the go-to man. "You not only lose a go-to guy who can deliver 95 percent of the time he's called on,'' Collins said, "but also a statesman for the team. He wasn't an outgoing ambassador with the media but the team loved Ced. Even though he shot a lot of the time, I can vouch for the fact that Cedric was not a selfish ballplayer. He took charges and rebounded and in the locker room, he was a positive leader.''

UIC returns five players who averaged at least 15 minutes a game. The one who has earned the most respect from Collins with his attitude and summer work ethic is forward Jovan Stefanov (8.8 ppg, 5.1 rpg). The 6-9 junior from Belgrade, Yugoslavia has a nice all-around game and figures to look for more shots now that Banks is gone. "I can't say enough positive about him,'' Collins said. "I'm not going to lie to you, I'm partial to Jovan. And I certainly think he could have put up larger numbers in the past, but he is very unselfish. He believes in the chain of command. He believes Cedric was supposed to shoot, which a lot of us believed. He also believed Armond was supposed to shoot, which not all of us believed.''

Stefanov will become more of a focal point of the offense, which he should be able to handle. He was UIC's leading scorer with 15 points in a loss to Duke last year. His game is versatile and he doesn't take many bad shots.

Another guy who figures to boost his scoring is sophomore guard Karl White (5.5 ppg, 1.0 rpg). The 6-2 Nebraskan was a role player as a freshman but ended up starting at the end of the year. A natural off-guard, White played some point last year because Banks' presence meant there weren't a lot of minutes at the two-guard spot. White, more than anyone, steps up into Banks' void. "Playing some at the point last year helped him see the floor to understand offense,'' Collins said, "and that helped him. This year, he'll play the two exclusively. He won't have to worry about getting everybody else involved. And more important than scoring, he can be a tremendous defensive player.''

Although Collins is reluctant to consider anybody a lock for a starting job, Elliott Poole joins White and Stefanov as being at least penciled in. The 6-7 Poole (9.9 ppg, 5.8 rpg) is a key to UIC's season if he fits into the scheme of things. "He has all the ability and potential,'' Collins said, "but potential just means it's there. You have to bring it out. The last two years he never really got into tip-top shape until going down the stretch. If he does that now, by the time we get to the end of the conference, we're going to have a monster. He can beat you to death if his head is on right, or he can hurt you to death if it's not.'' It wouldn't be unreasonable to see Poole average a double-double if he maxes his ability. He's crafty using all the angles on the glass to score in the paint.

Who joins Poole in the paint? Two newcomers Collins is excited about are Othyus Jeffers, a 6-5 Chicago native from a California junior college, and Daniel Zoric, a Serbian from a Texas JUCO. Jeffers practically grew up on campus. His cousin, Mark Miller, was a UIC great who had his jersey hung in the rafters. The Flames will take it down, though, so Jeffers can also wear No. 12 to honor Miller's legacy. Jeffers played one year of junior college ball then sat out last year. He was at UIC last season but didn't get to practice. He has three years to play. "He's put in the time and he's bursting with enthusiasm,'' Collins said. "He will pass, rebound and he's willing to get down and dirty. That's the kind of player we've been noted for through the years. He's been coming to our gym since he was eight years old. He's been a part of our family. It's always good to be in a program where you don't have to recruit a player but that player recruits you.'' Jeffers can play three positions, much like the departed Williams, but is more skilled offensively than Williams. Zoric is a 6-9 wide body who averaged 19.3 points and 8.0 rebounds at Collin County Community College in Texas. He has a strong work ethic and is a quick study. Collins is counting on him to shore up the post game this winter.

Jovan Ignjatovic is a 6-9 freshman who came from Serbia to Chicago's Whitney Young High School. "Iggy" is a red-shirt candidate only because he has such a promising upside Collins doesn't want to waste a year of eligibility having him sit behind some veterans.

Justin Bowen is one of those veterans. The 6-7 Bowen (7.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg) started 17 games last year and averaged 24 minutes. If Stefanov takes over the three spot, Bowen could slide down to the four where he is most productive (he has no outside shot). What Bowen brings is energy and a willingness to attack the glass. He's the best leaper on the team.

Luther Boyd (1.0 ppg, 1.2 rpg) is a 6-7 senior forward who will fight for spot minutes. Kevin Hill, a red-shirt sophomore, is 6-8 and raw. If he is able to contribute this year, it will be defense and rebounding. Kevin Bond (1.7 ppg, 0.7 rpg) is a 6-5 sophomore who averaged five minutes last season but is capable of more. Robert Bush (1.0 ppg, 0.5 rpg) is a 6-4 sophomore guard with similar stats to Bond.

One of the most interesting roster battles will be at point guard. Rocky Collum (8.7 ppg), a 5-10 senior, is the incumbent, but Collins says the job is wide open. Collum had the tough task last year of replacing Bailey as the distributor and the chemistry wasn't always ideal. Collum is the best three-point shooter on the team but didn't' endear himself to Collins over the summer by not getting in the gym often enough. Thus, newcomers D.J. Smedley and Josh Mayo are very much in the running to start.

Californian Smedley is only 5-10, but the junior proved at Saddleback Junior College he has a high basketball IQ. He doesn't look to score much but has a true set-up man's mentality. "He's put in the time over the summer,'' Collins said. "Rocky has experience but he has not put in the time. That doesn't mean he won't rise back up, but his spot is not a given.''

Mayo, a 5-10 freshman, comes from Merrillville, Ind., and is an offensive-minded point guard in the mold of Dee Brown at Illinois. "He can play the game,'' Collins said. "I like it when you bring in new guys because they want to please you. They want to play.''

One more newcomer in the backcourt is junior Greg Zimny, a 6-1 transfer from Samford. His strong suit is stretching a defense with his shooting.

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

BACKCOURT: B
BENCH/DEPTH: B+
FRONTCOURT: B
INTANGIBLES: C

This will be a new-look season at UIC. The Flames have said farewell to some familiar (and important) faces over the last two years. It remains to be seen if an influx of newcomers can elevate the program back to its accustomed role of Horizon League title contender.

One thing is for sure, Collins welcomes the challenge and looks for an improved team-oriented attitude to re-energize the Flames. The three key returnees are Stefanov, Poole and White, all of whom must elevate their scoring to make up for the loss of Cedric Banks. Look for White to make the biggest jump.

The key newcomer is forward Jeffers, who should be a valuable contributor by conference season. Among holdover Collum and newcomers Smedley and Mayo, Collins should be able to find a competent point guard. In a best-case scenario, UIC could sneak back into contention.

For the most comprehensive previews on all 326 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 25th anniversary edition of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).

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