UIC has had a lot of struggles this season. The Flames are a rebuilding program after graduations, transfers and academic struggles left the team gutted. Almost the entire starting lineup needed to be replaced or patched - as was the case until Spencer Stewart returned at point guard - and there were a lot of growing pains.
This weekend in Ohio those growing pains continued as the Flames lost both games. The loss to Youngstown State was a tough 76-67 defeat in which UIC played the game very close for a long time and then a late rally fell just short on Saturday as the Flames lost 70-63 to Cleveland State.
A bright spot though is the play of senior forward Jeremy Buttell over those past two games. He showed a willingness to be more assertive on the offensive end over the weekend. Before this weekend he wasn't even averaging double figures in points, but he's stepped in a big way the past two games.
Buttell scored 22 points and grabbed 8 rebounds against Youngstown after scoring 31 points and grabbing 12 rebounds against Cleveland State. People are noticing too. Buttell's name was mentioned in a couple of blogs and articles about the two games. It is the first time in his collegiate career that Buttell scored 20 points in back-to-back games.
While he doesn't necessarily need to score for UIC to win ballgames, the addition of Buttell's offensive production should help balance out a team that was becoming too guard oriented. Robo Kreps and Zavion Neely have been hounded on the perimeter by teams. But if a forward can take some of the pressure off - and maybe even stretch the floor himself - then the Flames will be better off. Buttell did that against the Vikings. He went 4-6 from beyond the arc and 12-19 from the floor overall in scoring his 31 points.
The other reason Buttell needs to step up? He's the senior leader on a young Flames team. Unlike Stewart, he's been around all season on the court, and unlike Kris Harris and Chris Buchanan (the other two seniors on the team), Buttell plays significant minutes. Often he's surrounded in the front court by two players in their debut seasons in Division I basketball and so it's important that he take charge in the paint on both ends of the court.
UIC now has almost a week off before the Flames and Loyola meet up for a crosstown rivalry game in which both teams desperately need a victory. It should be an intense match-up and if Buttell is ready to go it will be much better for UIC.