Jimmy Collins sounds like a defeated man. The UIC head coach is desperately searching for answers. The Flames are struggling and Saturday afternoon's 84-55 blowout loss to Butler only highlighted the cracks in the UIC roster and game plan.
The loss was Collins' 200th as the head man of the Flames. UIC is 5-14, 1-8 in the Horizon League and hasn't won a game in 2010. After being swept this weekend by Valparaiso and Butler there aren't many opportunities left for the Flames to find wins. On a day when Butler's Nick Rodgers and Willie Veasley set the record for most wins by a player in Butler history at 101, they were in stark contrast to the frustrated players on the other bench.
UIC stayed with the talented Horizon League leaders for about 17 minutes in the first half. Butler led 28-24 with 3:19 to go after a jumper by Robo Kreps. But over the next 3 minutes the Flames would go scoreless and only a desperate leaner at the buzzer by Kreps - his final basket of the game - prevented UIC from being down more than 11 at the break. In the second half Butler easily pushed the lead to 20 points with 13:34 remaining and then coasted to victory. Collins tried a bunch of different players - 13 in all - but none proved effective.
"I'm glad we got an opportunity to play some of those guys at the end, because for all of the chat box people. And for all the people that come to our game," Collins said. "They are well within their rights to blame the coaching staff for what we're doing." The highlights for UIC were 13 points and 9 rebounds from Jeremy Buttell and 13 points and 3 assists from Zavion Neely. Neely, a starter for most of the season, came off the bench against Butler. But the Flames had no answer for Gordon Hayward - who scored 25 points and grabbed 8 boards, and Shelvin Mack - who scored 15. The Bulldogs scored off turnovers, on the fast break and on second chances - everything Collins said he had hoped to avoid.
"Obviously it all falls on the coach," he said. "I know that. I've been in this game so long I know that when you lose it's the coach and when you win it's the players. I've been in the game long enough to know that."
The question though isn't why UIC lost to a Butler team that has been ranked in the national polls for most of the season. The question is: How did UIC get to this point? The Flames are trying to win in the Horizon League with a roster that contains few impact players, four seniors and an overall roster that's mismatched and doesn't seem to be progressing as the season goes on.
"I guess I could put in some other plays. I guess I could run them harder. I guess I could make them practice longer. But I don't think that's the answer," Collins said.
Where is the program going? When Spencer Stewart, Chris Buchanan and Buttell graduate who will replace them? There didn't seem to be too many answers during those final few minutes. The players who got into the game struggled against Butler's final few guys off the bench. The Bulldogs took a 25-point lead in the final 5:09 and pushed it to as many as 32 before winning by the final 29-point margin.
"The only thing I can do is try to keep their heads up," Collins said. "We can score. We can score from different positions. But when you lose so many games and you get down then pretty soon you can't believe you can do it. My challenge right now is to try and keep them guys up, try to keep them going, try to stay as positive as I can because it is very difficult for me as their head coach to stay positive. We've won for a number of years, so it's difficult."
UIC hasn't won more than 18 games since 2004, the last time the Flames went to the NCAA Tournament. Collins has been around since 1996. He had a great string of seasons in the early part of the 2000's, but the Flames have been petering along as an average Horizon League squad for the past 5 seasons and this season the wheels have fallen off.
It's not just difficult for the coaches to stay positive when that happens. It's difficult for everyone from the players to the fans to the administration to keep on believing.
The lack of hope at UIC reminds me of another program last season. Ironically, former DePaul head coach Jerry Wainwright was in the stands on Saturday to watch UIC's latest defeat. Maybe he wasn't just a bystander, maybe he was a symbol of something much more significant.