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Steve McClain, UIC see value in tough early schedule

UIC returns home Thursday night after three road games to begin the season. | Steve Woltmann, UIC Athletics

UIC coach Steve McClain knew the start of the Flames’ season would be a challenge.

By scheduling road games at Notre Dame, Radford and Duquesne, McClain’s Flames faced three difficult matchups. And though UIC lost all three, McClain sees the value of the early stretch away from Chicago.

“Our guys, and especially our new guys, are having to learn and adapt quickly and learn how to take scouting reports in one day and be able to absorb it,” McClain said. “I knew it was going to be a tough start, but I also know that it’s about growing and it’s about getting better [for] when we hit January, February and March.”

Guard Marcus Ottey saw the same thing.

“We’re just learning; you learn from every loss,” Ottey said. “We’ve played really good teams, so that means a lot of good stuff to learn from. From losing, it gets you a lot more hunger to get that first win, as well.”

The Flames’ schedule isn’t quite the same as 2017-18, when they began with four in a row at home, but there were similarly tough games. Last year in non-conference play, UIC went to powerhouse Kentucky and across town to visit Final Four-bound Loyola before going 12-6 in Horizon League play and reaching the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament championship game.

McClain is confident the difficult games will have the same impact this time.

“We started last year [by] playing a hard road schedule, and it paid off for us,” McClain said. “I made the choice to do it and knew it could be a tough start. When you look at our first five games, you’re talking about five teams that all have a great opportunity to be 19- to 22-win teams and play in postseason play.

“Now maybe I’m crazy — I shouldn’t have probably done that — but I also think that’s what’s going to make us better in January, February and March.”

As McClain alluded to, the trying games aren’t over.

On Thursday, UIC hosts William & Mary in its home opener as McClain will try again for his 200th career victory. Two days later, Bradley will visit the Pavilion. Last season, William & Mary went 19-12, and Bradley was 20-13 and pushed Loyola in a conference semifinal.

“If we keep working hard and learn from it and keep moving forward,” Ottey said, “we know that we’re going to get better and be where we want to be.”