BY TONI GINNETTI
Special to the Sun-Times
The outlook for UIC couldn’t have been more positive when last season began. The Flames were looking to build on an 18-16 record in 2012-13 that had been their best in years.
But the outlook didn’t take into account what happens when a team that plays close games continually comes up short. UIC finished 6-25 in 2013-14 and won only one of its 16 games in the Horizon League.
‘‘It was one of those seasons where you say, ‘Let’s stay together,’ ’’ said coach Howard Moore, who is entering his fifth season. ‘‘We played so many close games [losing nine by margins of seven points or fewer points]. But they never stopped competing, never made excuses and were always trying to get better.
‘‘But the biggest thing it taught me was we had to get back to our core values and our identity, and that’s playing defense.’’
The Flames led the Horizon League in field-goal percentage allowed in 2012-13, something senior guard Marc Brown remembers — and embraces.
‘‘Coach always has pushed me to be better, and that’s why I came here,’’ Brown said. ‘‘We learned we had to keep competing and working hard. And we have to play as a team on both offense and defense. No one player will win a game; we have to play together.’’
The players already have shown Moore they are heeding his philosophy. During an exhibition trip in August, UIC played five games against Canadian opponents and won its last three.
‘‘It allowed me to see what this group is going to be like,’’ Moore said. ‘‘They were feeling each other out in those first games, but by the last game guys were telling each other, ‘It’s winning time.’ I saw a different look in their faces, more talking about what we needed to do, and they did it on defense.
‘‘That’s our identity, and that’s what we did two years ago when we won 18. That’s what we’ll re-establish this year — that defense defines us.’’
The Flames feature six newcomers. Among them are three junior-college players in forward Jason McClellan, guard D’Juan Miller and guard Paris Burns; guard Jay Harris, a transfer from Wagner; and two freshmen, forward/center Tai Odiase from Homewood-Flossmoor and forward David Ramon.
Moore’s coaching staff has new faces, too. The most notable of them is former Simeon and Illinois standout Deon Thomas, who spent the last five seasons as the athletic director and coach at Lewis and Clark Community College.
‘‘I’ve known him since high school,’’ Moore said. ‘‘He’s already had an impact as part of our staff.’’
UIC was picked to finish last in the Horizon League in a preseason poll, but that only serves as more motivation, Brown said.
‘‘I could care less about that,’’ he said. ‘‘I think being in Canada helped us get to know each other personally and on the court.’’
The Flames’ nonconference schedule features games against local rivals DePaul, Northwestern and Loyola, as well as state rivals Southern Illinois and Bradley.
‘‘I think it’s always important to play the teams around Chicago and in-state,’’ Moore said. ‘‘Everyone wants to see which of these teams will emerge [as a power again], and that will be good for everyone.’’