After challenging nonconference slate, UIC ready for conference play

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Steve McClain and UIC open conference play Thursday. | Steve Woltmann, UIC Athletics

When coach Steve McClain says UIC played a difficult non-conference schedule he isn’t just paying respect to the opponents. The Flames faced local rivals Loyola, DePaul, Illinois State and Northern Illinois and on Nov. 26 traveled to Rupp Arena to play a typically talented Kentucky team.

The Flames lost 107-73 but McClain sees the positives of games like that. His team had to learn to embrace the road and figure out how to create energy in a hostile environment.

“It’s a big benefit to teams that do it,” McClain said. “We’ll always continue to do it now. There’s nothing but positives to it.”

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UIC (5-8) emerged from nonconference play with the confidence that it can handle its Horizon League schedule.

“Our mentality going into it is that we know we’re capable of playing and beating anyone in this league, because of who we have seen — from Kentucky to DePaul to Loyola, at Illinois State,” McClain said. “We didn’t hide from any opponents.”

UIC opens conference play Thursday at Wright State. That game is the first leg of a three-game road swing to begin the conference slate. Then the Flames visit Northern Kentucky, which made the 2017 NCAA Tournament, before ending the trip against Horizon League newcomer IUPUI.

“We’ve got a tough stretch right here to open up,” McClain said. “But you also want your guys to understand conference play is a long race and some people open it up at home and go 2-0, some people open up on the road and go 0-2. You can’t get wrapped up in everything immediately. You’ve got to know everybody has to go on the road and everybody has to go through some trials.”

Other than the schedule, the biggest trial the Flames have gone through is a beat-up backcourt. Tarkus Ferguson (foot) has appeared in six games and Godwin Boahen broke his nose on Dec. 19. McClain hopes to have Ferguson back in about two weeks and -Boahen should return for the -upcoming road trip.

“We need to get our guards back healthy, but our guys know that when you start conference play it’s a whole new season,” McClain said. “For everybody.”

Follow me on Twitter @BrianSandalow.

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