With coach Moore in place, UIC raises its toughness bar

When UIC introduced Wisconsin assistant Howard Moore as Jimmy Collins' successor in August, senior guard Robo Kreps wasn't sure what it meant.

Or who Moore might be.

“I looked him up on Google, actually,” Kreps said with a laugh. “I really didn't know anything about him. I liked what I read, obviously.”

Over the last 11 weeks, Kreps and his 16 UIC teammates have had ample opportunity to discover what the 37-year-old West Side native is all about.

Because Moore imported Wisconsin's swing offense and hard-nosed man-to-man defense not to mention Bo Ryan's son, Matt, as his director of basketball operations the crash course began in the video room.

“The first week he was here, we got three DVDs of Wisconsin,” said sophomore forward Anthony Kelley from Aurora Central. “Wisconsin in a single game playing against Milwaukee. Then they had a breakdown of the swing and another breakdown of the swing.

“They did a really good job during our preseason when we had individual (workouts), we focused a lot on piecing it together. First we started with the down screen, then the flares and all the different pieces building up to the first day of practice.”

During UIC's practices, every player works on post skills and perimeter shooting because the swing demands multi-faceted players.

Mostly, though, Moore's practices are clinics in defense and toughness.

During a session open to the media two weeks ago, 12 Flames at a time threw each other all over the gym in a no-boundaries, no-fouls rebounding drill that wouldn't have been out of place in an MMA ring.

At one point during the scrum, Moore yelled to his guys, “Beating the (mess) out of each other! I'm loving it!”

He'll love it more when UIC shows significant improvement in rebounding and defense. Last year's group ranked 219th out of 334 Div. I teams in field-goal percentage defense (44.0 percent) and ranked 317th in rebound margin (minus -6.4).

So, senior forward Paul Carter, the crucial Minnesota transfer: What percentage of Moore's practices are devoted to defensive drills?

“If you asked Coach, he'd probably say 100 percent,” Carter said. “Even though we're doing offensive drills, Coach is still stressing defense. It's defense, defense, defense. That's the backbone of our team.

“Shooting drills are still about closing out (on the shooter). Offensive drills, even though we're running plays, you still need to be in the right position defensively or he will tell you you're in the wrong spot and he won't say it in his quietest voice.”

Moore's efforts to change the Flames' emphases are made easier by the fact seven of the 12 scholarship players are new to the team.

Moreover, UIC's scholarship chart is top-heavy with four seniors and five juniors: Lots of guys without much time to make an impact at the major-college level.

“I'd probably say it definitely adds a high level of intensity,” Carter said. “We definitely try and get after it. And with Coach, he wants us to learn it quick. It's not like a learn-or-die situation, but it's ‘You learn this right now or somebody else is going to learn this.'

“It's pretty dog-eat-dog. We're competing, but we're still helping each other learn.”

With so many moving parts to UIC's new regime, the Flames didn't fare well in the preseason polls. The coaches, sports information directors and media pegged UIC to repeat its ninth-place finish in the 10-team Horizon League.

“Can you take it personally? Absolutely,” Moore said. “I told these guys: ‘They picked us ninth. So what? Let's just go play.'

“We want to make sure our guys understand that we've got a lot of work to do. And the fact that the way that we're practicing now and we're playing now will be totally different in February and March. That's the goal: To get better and make sure this team progresses and grows.”

Kreps doesn't need to consult Google or pollsters to know what his final UIC team can accomplish. He's even more optimistic than Moore.

“I think we're going to be pretty darn good,” Kreps said. “My goal is to reverse our record from last year. We were 8-22. I don't see why we can't be 22-8 this year.

“Expectations are high from my standpoint and I think everybody else is the exact same way.”

UIC Flames at a glanceCoach: Howard Moore (1st year)2009-10 record: 8-22 (3-15 Horizon, ninth); Lost to Milwaukee in Horizon League tournament first-round gameStarters returning/lost: 4/2Projected startersSF Paul Carter 6-8 200 Sr.: Minnesota transfer challenged by Moore to be the Horizon's defensive player of the yearPF Brad Birton* 6-7 192 Sr.: Ferocious competitor fits defense-first scheme; likes to hit boards, tooC K.C. Robbins* 6-11 278 Sr.: Last year's 2-to-31 assist-to-turnover ratio won't fly in swing offenseSG Zavion Neely* 6-1 177 Jr.: Tried just 43 3-pointers last year, but has a knack for attacking the rimPG Robo Kreps* 6-1 200 Sr.: Instead of having to create for himself, Kreps (15.2 ppg) can initiate offense and then get shots in the flow*-denotes returning starterReservesC Darrin Williams 6-9 282 Jr.: Juco transfer might be massive, but he's light on his feet with a nice touch on his shotG Daniel Barnes 6-2 180 Jr.: Former Eastern Michigan player essentially the third guard in rotation; can play either spotG Matt Bush 6-4 193 Jr.: Sharpshooter walked on and redshirted last year, but UIC needs his 3-point touch on the floorPF Dorian Tyler 6-9 191 Jr.: Wiry juco transfer brings athleticism and fine shooting touch to 4 spotSF Anthony Kelley 6-6 188 So.: Aurora Central grad has gained nearly 25 pounds, which allows him to mix it up more at 3 spotPF Eddie Denard 6-7 222 Fr.: Muscle-bound CPL product will be a beast when his shooting matches his aggressivenessG Corey Gray 5-10 173 So.: With 229 minutes last season, this walk-on (1.7 ppg) is fifth on the squad in returning experiencePF Paris Carter 6-7 230 Jr.: Juco transfer adds another muscular body in the post, but only when hamstring injury clears upG Arman Rasul 6-4 198 So.: Walk-on from Rich South played 13 minutes last yearG Shawn King 6-4 202 Fr.: Team's other rookie, a shooter from Arizona, didn't play in exhibition due to knee injuryG Dipangot Singh 6-3 190 Sr.: Walk-on won the team's 3-point shooting title at Blue-Red scrimmageG Jimmy Harding 6-5 168 Sr.: Fourth-year walk-on from Minooka drilled his lone career 3-pointer vs. Butler last year