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Opponent Profile: Illinois-Chicago (UIC)

By Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)

One of the most important qualities of upper-echelon teams is their ability to rebound after losses. Northwestern faces that challenge in the wake of Tuesday night’s 20-point mauling at Welsh Ryan Arena courtesy of Maryland. The Terrapins are a very good team, a minor threat to Duke and North Carolina and NC State at the top of the ACC, but that doesn’t disabuse the Wildcats of the sheer messiness and inefficiency with which they approached their biggest nonconference game of the season to date. The process of moving beyond that lamentable effort begins Saturday with UIC, a 5-1 team from the Horizon league you’ve probably only heard mentioned in passing in basketball-related conversations.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call UIC Northwestern’s in-state rival, because rivalries require a certain level of mutual competitive spite. And no offense to the Flames, but you won’t find too many Wildcats fans getting amped up for this Chicagoland matchup. That said, the Flames are definitely heading in the right direction under third-year coach Howard Moore. After winning seven and eight games in the first two years of Moore’s tenure, UIC opened its season at a 5-1 clip, its only loss coming against Mountain West contender New Mexico. So the Wildcats could have a sneaky-good matchup on their hands Saturday. Here’s what you need to know.

Coach: Howard Moore
Second Season, Record at UIC: 20-47 (5-31 Horizon)
Conference: Horizon
Preseason Media Poll Projection: 8th
Season Profile
Record: 5-1
Best win: Iona
Worst (and only) Loss: New Mexico

Three Players to Watch

Josh Crittle, Senior

An unexpected blessing fell into Moore’s hands this summer when UCF, Crittle’s former team, was hit with a postseason ban that allowed players to transfer with immediate eligibility upon arriving at new schools. The Bellwood, Ill, native decided to return home to play out his eligibility, and thus far, it looks like Crittle made an excellent decision. He’s given UIC exactly what it needed after losing Darin Williams and Paris Carter, the Flames’ two most reliable frontcourt players from last year’s roster. Crittle’s impact is a visible, but the stats bear it out, too.

Through six games, the 6-9 forward has established his place as the Flames’ primary offensive option. According to Ken Pomeroy’s tempo-free statistics, he’s using 27.8 percent of available possessions and hoisting 22.4 percent available shots, both team-highs. Crittle’s added frontcourt scoring punch has been at the heart of the Flames’ early success, but his interior passing is no less critical – Crittle’s 21.0 assist rate is best among the Flames’ frontcourt players. He’s one of UIC’s offensive centerpieces, so you can expect Crittle to get plenty of looks against Northwestern’s still-questionable frontcourt.

Hayden Humes, Junior

A scholarship crunch at Toledo left Humes out of the mix and prompted him to transfer to UIC, where he’s made a fantastic addition to Moore’s rising outfit. At his current pace, Humes is well on his way to an All-conference type season. Humes is managing the fine balance of scoring at a high rate while efficiently allocating possessions to avoid the dreaded “volume shooter” designation. His 126.7 offensive rating and 63.3 percent effective field goal percentage (offensive metrics that adjust for number of possessions), even in this limited sample size, speak for themselves. What’s more, Humes is shooting a lights-out 52 percent from three and nearly 88 percent from the free throw line, all while using just 17.6 percent of his team’s possessions. All of which is an analytic way of saying that Humes is a high-output, highly efficient offensive player.

But if you're not ready to buy in on Humes based off statistical analysis, there are other, more tangibly obvious reasons to stand up and take notice of Humes' dynamic game. Guarding stretch fours – a label that fits Humes perfectly – is never easy. It requires a special blend of athleticism and size – most guys are either too big and slow, or too small to fit the matchup demands. Teams typically don’t have great individual options for these hybridized inside-out threats, and Northwestern is no different in sharing that deficiency. Keeping Humes in check will be a credible challenge for the Wildcats.

Gary Talton, Senior

Few players across the nation (38, to be exact) play as high a percentage of his team’s minutes as Talton (90.4 percent). With that enormous quantity comes quality point guard play – Talton’s 31.1 assist rate and 7.6 turnover rate both fall in the top-120 of those respective categories. Talton runs the show on the offensive end of the floor and serves as the creative engine for Moore’s attack. That statistical profile tells of an efficient and sure-handed lead guard, one who doesn’t make mistakes and is capable of spacing the floor and finding teammates for high-percentage looks. His facilitative qualities are nearly matched by his scoring. Talton’s 13.2 ppg ranks second behind Humes (13.8).

The bottom line with Talton is, UIC needs him to initiate offensive sets and generate scoring opportunities for Crittle, Humes and other adept scorers. He runs the floor with purpose and direction, and has an innovative propensity for opening up UIC’s offense with keen passing and serviceable scoring abilities. The Flames are one of the more balanced offensive teams in the country, with five players all averaging between 20 and 23 percent of available shots, and Talton is a huge reason why. Even if his scoring track record doesn’t jump off the page, Talton’s ballhandling and decision-making are huge components of UIC’s offense.

Key Matchup: Alex Olah vs. Josh Crittle

The influx of frontcourt depth spawned optimistic projections that Northwestern would reverse its recent rebounding and interior scoring woes. Then Maryland seized total control of the paint on both ends of the floor and showed the Wildcats have a long way to go before they can consider themselves an improved frontcourt team. The road to progress, as we’ve learned through the first six games of the season, is not an instant reward proposition. It requires a maturation process, particularly from younger players like Alex Olah. I spotlighted Olah in this segment for the Maryland matchup. He gave it a solid go against the Terrapins’ Alex Len, but the result was nothing unpredictable.

It would have been foolish to expect Olah to credibly challenge a future lottery pick, and Len made it clear from the tip he was going to dominate the still-learning freshman. Olah gets an easier, but hardly forgiving matchup with Tittle Saturday. Olah doesn’t need to be a go-to scorer. He needs to contest shots, crash the glass and work the high post by firing crisp passes and hitting backdoor cutters. Crittle doesn’t present nearly the same challenge as Len did, so Olah should have an easier time Saturday. Let’s see if he can correct his mistakes and matchup with one of UIC’s most important interior players.