CU men's basketball preview: Illinois-Chicago Flames

TIPOFF: Saturday, 4 p.m., CU Events Center.

BROADCAST: TV — Pac-12 Network; Radio — 850 AM.

RECORDS: Illinois-Chicago 4-5; Colorado 6-1.

COACHES: Illinois-Chicago — Steve McClain, 4th season (49-70, 206-185 overall); Colorado — Tad Boyle, 9th season (172-111, 228-177 overall).

KEY PLAYERS: Illinois Chicago — G Tarkus Ferguson, Jr., 17.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg; 6.3 apg; G Marcus Ottey, Jr., 16.1 ppg; G Godwin Boahen, Jr., 15.9 ppg, 3.3 rpg. Colorado — G McKinley Wright, So., 14.3 ppg, 6.0 apg, 5.3 rpg; F Lucas Siewert, Jr., 12.7 ppg, 6.4 rpg; F Tyler Bey, So., 11.7 ppg, 7.6 rpg.

NOTES: This will be the first meeting between the programs...McClain compiled a 157-115 mark in nine seasons as the head coach at Wyoming. He went 2-0 against the Buffs while at Wyoming, including a win in Boulder on Nov. 26, 2006...The Buffs enter the weekend ranked second in the Pac-12 in points per game (85.3), first in field goal percentage (.501), and third in 3-point percentage (.387). Defensively, CU ranks fifth in points allowed per game (68.4) and eighth in defensive field goal percentage (.413)...CU's Wright ranks second in the Pac-12 in assists, trailing only UCLA's Jaylen Hands (6.3)...Ferguson posted just the second triple-double in UIC history in a win Wednesday against Illinois State, finishing with 14 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists.


..The Buffs hit the road for a date at New Mexico on Tuesday (7 p.m., ESPN2).

In the spring of 2010, following a three-year stint as an assistant at Colorado under head coach Jeff Bzdelik, Steve McClain was one of the finalists to take over the CU men's basketball program when Bzdelik left for Wake Forest.

Instead, former Buffaloes athletic director Mike Bohn turned to the Colorado native doing great things at Northern Colorado, and before long new coach Tad Boyle was taking the CU program to new heights.

McClain finally will return to the CU Events Center Saturday, as he leads his Illinois-Chicago team into a nonconference battle that will mark the Buffs' final home game for a month.

"I wouldn't say that I know him well, but I do know Steve," Boyle said. "He's been around a long time and coached at a lot of different places. This is an opportunity for him, it's an opportunity for his players. But it's also an opportunity for us. We have to make sure that we've got our edge ready to play."

McClain's return to Boulder is shaping up to be another high-scoring affair for the Buffaloes.

CU is averaging 85.3 points per game. In the four games since a 70-64 loss at San Diego a little more than two weeks ago, all victories, that average is a touch higher at 88.5 points per game.

The UIC Flames are averaging 81.5 points per game and, like the Buffs, they will bring solid shooting percentages to the Events Center at .483 overall and .381 from 3-point range, though the Flames have a curious drop-off at the free throw line (.684). The Flames are just 4-5 but have played a nonconference slate that included a trip to Notre Dame and a Chicago showdown against 2018 Final Four darlings Loyola.

"They're extremely dangerous," Boyle said. "They've got great guard play. They'be got bigs that are athletic and they just had a four-man (Jordan) Blount that just had a career-high (27 points) against Illinois State. We've got our work cut out. Those three guards can play at a lot of places. They're very, very good players. Explosive offensively. Our on-ball defense and ball-screen defense are going to be challenged in a major way."

UIC's top four scorers all are averaging at least 12 points per game. Depth, however, isn't the Flames' strong suit, as there is a significant dip to 7.2 points per game for the team's next scorer in line. The Buffs, meanwhile, feature four players averaging double-digit points and two others — Shane Gatling (9.6) and Evan Battey — knocking on that door.

Among those six players, Gatling is the only one not connecting at a clip of at least 50 percent from the floor, though the junior guard has picked up the pace lately with three consecutive double-digit scoring efforts while going 11-for-23 from the floor and 8-for-8 at the free throw line during that span.

"(Saturday) will be the last (home game) for a while, but we're excited for the opportunity," CU point guard McKinley Wright said. "We've been showcasing (offense) a lot. These guys have been helping me. Obviously I'm trusting them. My assists are going up and my turnovers are going down. Everyone is getting to the right spots where they need to be."

Pat Rooney: or