Game 1: UIC Flames

By: Ryan Roberts

Basketball is back in Cincinnati. The Bearcats begin the 2023-24 season, their first as a Big 12 member, against UIC at 9 p.m. on Monday night.

What you need to know:

UC is looking to build off its NIT Quarterfinals run, the program’s first postseason since 2019, in its inaugural Big 12 campaign. The Bearcats finished last season 23-13.

  • UC returns 29.5 percent of its scoring from last year, which ranks ninth in the Big 12. The Bearcats are also bringing back just 10.2 percent of its made three-pointers after setting school records for makes and attempts each of Wes Miller's first two seasons.
  • Cincinnati boasts eight newcomers (four transfers, two high school, one junior college, one walk-on). Simas Lukosius (11.2 ppg at Butler) and CJ Fredrick (6.1 ppg, 15 starts at Kentucky) lead the way, while bigs Aziz Bandaogo and Jamille Reynolds await their NCAA waiver decisions.
  • John Newman III (6.9 ppg, 4.2 rpg in 2021-22) functions as a ninth newcomer after only playing 11 minutes  last season. He is arguably the team's top backcourt defender.
  • Rayvon Griffith and Jizzle James are two top-60 high-school signees as well.
  • Day Day Thomas' lightning-speed provides a different dynamic for the Bearcats at the point guard spot. Wes and other players have mentioned multiple times throughout the off season how difficult it is for defenders to stay in front of Thomas. 
  • Viktor Lakhin took a mammoth leap last year, averaging 11.6 ppg and 7.1 rpg. He had 46 blocks as well and was second on the team with 39 steals. The 6-foot-11 redshirt-junior, who earned his degree in three years, has also impressed with his three-point shooting ability over the offseason. Coach Wes Miller stated during his most recent presser that Vik has shot around 40% this off season. That adds a different dynamic to this offense. 
  • Dan Skillings Jr. was named one of Jon Rothstein's 20 Under-the-Radar breakout players for 2023-24. UC was 4-0 when he scored in double-figures last season, and he posted a career-high 20 against Temple in the AAC Tournament. 
  • The Bearcats are 28-9 at home under Wes Miller. UC also went 13-8 after switching to a three-guard lineup on Jan. 5 last year.
  • Cincinnati was 30th nationally in fewest turnovers after going 28th in 2021-22. It was 267 and 289 the previous two years before Miller's arrival. UC's 77.1 ppg were also its most since 2001-02.
  • Miller has won five-straight season openers combining his UC and UNCG tenures, including against Evansville and Chaminade at home for the Bearcats. UC has won four consecutive debuts overall.

The Cincinnati-UIC Series:

  • This will be the fourth meeting in the series between UIC and Cincinnati, with the Bearcats holding a 2-1 edge (the teams split their two prior matchups since the Flames moved to the Division I level in 1981-82).
  • The series is also even at 1-1 when playing in Cincinnati, with both of those previous contests played at historic Riverfront Coliseum.
  • In their most recent encounter on Dec. 12, 1983, UIC came away with a 72-64 victory at Riverfront Coliseum.

A look at UIC:

  • UIC is aiming for its first win over a Power Five opponent since Dec. 1, 2012, when the Flames defeated Northwestern, 50-44 at Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston.
  • If one includes the BIG EAST as a power conference in basketball circles, the last Flames' win over that group came on Dec. 14, 2016, when UIC toppled crosstown rival DePaul, 80-75, at McGrath-Phillips Arena in Lincoln Park.
  • UIC head coach Luke Yaklich has developed a reputation for building tough, defensive-minded clubs throughout his career on the sidelines.
  • In his first three seasons with the Flames, UIC is 11-0 when holding opponents to 60 points or fewer
  • UIC has two starters and seven letterwinners returning this season, led by senior guard Toby Okani, who started every game and is the Flames' top returning scorer and rebounder from a season ago (11.0 ppg./7.1 rpg.).
  • Last year was Okani's first at UIC and his numbers were career highs across the board, following two seasons at Duquesne.
  • Okani was voted a 2023-24 preseason third-team All-Missouri Valley Conference selection by the conference coaches, SIDs and media.
  • Along with its seven returnees, UIC added nine newcomers to the fold this season, including six transfers (four from Division I schools).
  • Among the new arrivals are senior guard Isaiah Rivera (5.0 ppg., .397 3FG% in three years at Colorado State), graduate guard Marquise Kennedy (8.0 ppg. in four years at Loyola), junior guard Yusef Salih (5.9 ppg. in two years at Idaho) and sophomore guard Drew King (8.9 ppg. in one year at Houston Christian).
  • UIC started the 2023-24 season with a nine-day tour of Spain, winning all three games it played against local club teams in Barcelona and Madrid.

Final Thoughts:

There is a lot of juice and excitement around Wes Miller's squad. The team has length, versatility, size, and athleticism at every position.  While we are still waiting for the NCAA decision on Aziz and Jamille's waivers, this is not a game that should be close. UIC was picked to finish 10th in the Missouri Valley Conference and Vegas likes the Bearcats by 14.5. I like the Cats by more than 14.5 and think this is a game where we see Wes utilize everyone on the roster and overwhelm the opposition with their speed and uptempo play at both ends. 

Cincinnati 79 UIC 53




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