NCAA Talk

Upset alert? Why a confident UIC is challenging juggernaut Kentucky

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USA TODAY

Upset alert? Why a confident UIC is challenging juggernaut Kentucky

On the heels of a 12-win improvement, UIC basketball is riding confidently into the new season. 

And why shouldn't they be? Head coach Steve McClain returns a young, talented nucleus that's expected to challenge for a Horizon League championship and NCAA Tournament berth. 

In fact, the program is in such good shape that they thought: Let's play Kentucky. 

Yup, that's right. The UIC Flames will match up with the Kentucky Wildcats at Rupp Arena on Nov. 26, a necessary stage in development, according to McClain. 

“Every year you build your program, there’s steps you have to take," McClain said. "When we got the opportunity to go to Kentucky, I think that’s the next level of exposure for our program.

"When you're chasing trying to be great, you gotta show your kids and show people what greatness looks like. I don't think anyone can argue what Kentucky has done, so I want to put our kids in that environment so they see what it is." 

The contrast between programs is severe. UIC hasn't made an NCAA Tournament since 2004. The Wildcats have made 11 since then. UIC has never advanced out of the first round at the Big Dance. Kentucky has eight National Championships. 

Even this upcoming season, as the Flames boast one of their most skilled teams in school history, none of them were ever touted like Kentucky's freshman class, which ranks No. 2 in the nation per ESPN. 

But the disparities in past successes don't seem to bother UIC. Instead, players, who were likely snubbed by bigger schools in recruitment, are excited about the opportunity to compete on a national stage that the Flames rarely see. 

“First I was like, ‘It’s about time we got someone like (Kentucky) on our schedule,’" said center Tai Odiase, one of the few seniors on the roster. "We’ve been trying to play bigger teams to showcase what we’re made of."

“I don’t see why you go into a place like that without a chip on your shoulder. You don’t go in there just to play basketball, we’re trying to win."

UIC will be heavy, heavy underdogs. There's no way around that. But there are certain spots where they may not be at such a disadvantage. 

On the defensive end, Odiase continued to terrorize guards and big men alike, finishing fifth in the NCAA with 2.9 blocks per game. The dynamic guard duo from "The Six," Godwin Boahen and Marcus Ottey, are quick enough to hang and both took a huge step down the stretch last season. Then there's the return of 2015-2016 Horizon League Newcomer of the Year Dikembe Dixson, who is recovering from a torn ACL.

"The doctors at times thought he was a freak of nature because he was back as quick as he was," McClain said.  

Still, it's a tune-up game for Kentucky, who also scheduled Kansas, UCLA and Louisville on their non-conference slate. But one team's expected walk through is another team's vital experience. 

"Our guys can walk in and see that on a given night, you can compete with anyone," McClain said. 

Given new athletic director Garrett Klassy's comments at his introductory press conference, it doesn't seem as if games like this are a one-hit wonder for UIC. 

“I am an aggressive scheduler," Klassy said. "I helped with the scheduling at George Washington. We’ll play anyone, anytime, anywhere.

"You want to measure yourself against the best. We have a lot of returning starters. It’ll be nice to go on the road, play a tough game and maybe sneak out an upset."

Loyola finishes top 10 in Coaches Poll

Loyola finishes top 10 in Coaches Poll

This year’s March Madness Cinderella team (accompanied by rising star Sister Jean) not only captured the hearts of Chicagoland and underdog supporters alike, but also Division 1 coaches, too.

Loyola University Chicago finished in the top 10 of the USA Today Coaches Poll, landing a 21 spot climb to finish in seventh place — the biggest rise the 2018 poll saw. The poll is conducted weekly with votes coming from a panel of Division 1 coaches who are all members of the National Association of Basketball Coaches.

Loyola made the biggest climb from 21st to 7th in the Coaches Poll!

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Loyola shocked the college basketball nation as the team was only the fourth No. 11 seed in NCAA basketball history to reach the Final Four, where they were defeated March 31 by No. 3 seed University of Michigan 57-69.

Relive their memorable journey here.

Loyola's magical run ends with Final Four loss to Michigan

Loyola's magical run ends with Final Four loss to Michigan

The Loyola Ramblers captured the hearts of millions with their magical run through March Madness.

And while it seemed like this talented group, led by head coach Porter Moser - and Sister Jean, might never lose, their journey ended Saturday night in San Antonio at the hands of the third-seeded Michigan Wolverines.

The Ramblers went through a dry spell in the first half but still managed to take a 29-22 lead into halftime in a game that featured two suffocating defenses. The second half was a different story, as the Wolverines put on a clinic and continued their lockdown defense, outscoring the Ramblers by 21 in the eventual 69-57 victory.

Relive their magical run in the video above. Below you can find our Facebook Live coverage of Gentile Arena, where the Ramblers' official watch party took place during the game.