Flames will look to a combination of veteran returnees and experienced transfers to find success in Yaklich’s second season
Luke Yaklich’s debut as UIC’s head coach last season showed promise, but a combination of injuries and COVID protocol issues derailed any momentum the Flames could have had. While much of the starting lineup remains intact, including super seniors Michael Diggins and Jamie Ahale, Teyvion Kirk is no longer with the team, and a swath of new players have arrived to bolster Yaklich’s depth in both the frontcourt and the backcourt.
Demaria Franklin – The hometown kid has returned to Chicago after spending last season with Tennessee Tech. During that campaign, he started 18 games and averaged 13.3 points per contest. With Kirk gone, Franklin will likely be the go-to guy in terms of filling the scoring gap.
Brandon Battle – The Alabama State transfer is poised to take the spot of the departed Braelen Bridges in the frontcourt. His 7.7 boards per contest led the Hornets last season, plus he also notched 15 blocks. Given that he also started in two seasons at Alabama State, there may be some opportunities in the lineup as the season goes on.
Kevin Johnson – Adding to the UIC backcourt depth is Johnson, a 6-0 transfer from Nicholls State. His specialty is defense, a trait that clearly appealed to Yaklich, having notched 65 steals last season, including seven takeaways in a game against Houston Baptist.
Marcus Larsson – The Incarnate Word transfer and native Norwegian will add some additional rebounding power to the UIC rotation. Despite an injury-riddle sophomore campaign with the Cardinals, he still led the team in rebounds, grabbing 7.1 boards per game.
Jalen Warren – Warren’s college career began at Florida Gulf Coast, where he was the main distributor for Dunk City his junior year, recording 3.8 assists per game. The COVID-truncated season affected his productivity, and opted, after starting 39 games with the Eagles, to head up north to Credit Union 1 Arena.
Maurice Commander – Commander got a slow start last season, but the Chattanooga transfer eventually got going and made his way into a starting spot. This season, he will likely be the one running the point, now that Kirk is no longer with the Flames, and
RayQuawndis Mitchell – From the outset, Mitchell appeared to be the scorer that Yaklich would rely on throughout the season. But after being sidelined for a month and with the emergence of Kirk and Commander, his productivity dropped off. With Kirk gone, though, Mitchell has another opportunity to emerge as a top scorer for UIC.
Jamie Ahale – The Flames’ primary sharpshooter returns after opting to stay in Chicago for his extra year. Having started 18 games last season, the Aussie, flanked by a host of experience guards, should have even more chances to score beyond the arc and improved on his 34.1% shooting percentage from a season ago.
Zion Griffin – Griffin’s promising season was cut short by injury, having bowed out of the 2020-21 season in mid-February. Fully healthy, the former Iowa State Cyclone will look to make good on what began as a promising start as a Flame, starting six contests and scoring in double digits multiple times when he was on the floor.
Michael Diggins – The high-flying Diggins opted into his extra year and stands as the leading remaining scorer from last season. Expectations for this season will be high as the lone UIC player that started every game last year. and certainly high enough to be selected on the third team of the HoriZone Roundtable Preseason All-Horizon League selections.
UIC is probably the most difficult team in the Horizon League to predict. The Flames were off to a strong start before injuries and COVID-19 protocols hit. Was that strong start an indicator of what the team could be? Or did the team get hot for a small stretch and we should expect more of how they finished? Last season was wildly different than any other in Horizon League history, and the Flames are the team that was most impacted by it.
UIC’s biggest challenge this season will be to how to manage the rotation. If last year is any indication, there may be opportunities for some of the transfers to crack the starting lineup, depending upon how Yaklich will game-plan for opponents. Ultimately, the Flames will need to jell quickly in order to outperform their preseason expectations.
Miss anything from Preview Week? Check it all out below:
Cleveland State • Wright State • Milwaukee • Detroit Mercy
Northern Kentucky • Oakland • Purdue Fort Wayne • Youngstown State
UIC • Robert Morris • Green Bay • IUPUI
Green Bay (WBB) • Cleveland State (WBB)