Around 147 miles northwest of the UIC Pavilion, Illinois-Chicago’s home court, a connection lies between its program and the Wisconsin Badgers—ex-Flames’ coach Howard Moore.
Moore manned their sidelines from 2010-15 after serving as an assistant in Madison, Wis. for the previous five seasons. Following his final campaign with UIC, he rejoined the Badgers’ staff in Dec. 2015. The last remaining recruit from his days on Chicago’s West Side is Tai Odiase, a 6-foot-9, 220-pound forward from Glenwood, Ill.
Although he’s averaging just 9.3 points and 5.7 rebounds per game, the senior has helped propel the Flames (15-12, 10-4) back into the Horizon League race because of his defensive prowess. Odiase boasts the 15th-highest block percentage (11.9 percent) in Division I, along with racking up the fourth-most blocks (84) in the country — eight behind Michigan State freshman Jaren Jackson Jr.
“He creates problems for everybody,” UIC coach McClain said. “We don’t need to do that (help off drives) when we’ve got him back there. If we get beat on a drive, they’ve gotta make a tough finish.”
After a 25-point loss to Northern Kentucky on Dec. 30, 2017, the Flames compiled their ninth defeat in the previous 12 games, seemingly headed for a fifth straight losing season. But since then, the team has reeled off 10 wins in its last 12 contests, shifting to third place in the conference.
First-year assistant coach Dee Brown, who was named the 2004-05 Sporting News’ National Player of the Year amid Illinois’ run to the national title game, credited that towards his personnel’s improved focus in the film room, particularly on defense. Led by Odiase—the Horizon League’s all-time leading shot blocker—UIC places first in the conference in opponents’ three-point shooting (31.2 percent) and third in KenPom’s defensive efficiency (.99 points per possession) metric. Last season, the group ranked eighth and seventh in those categories, respectively.
Moreover, its opponents own the 25th-lowest effective field goal percentage (46.8 percent) in the country.
“It’s a really good feeling to see all the work payoff after all these years of not having success,” Odiase said.
Flames’ guard Tarkus Ferguson cited how Odiase’s presence in the paint has allowed him and his teammates to exhibit additional on-ball tenacity. That was evident in their 79-73 win at Oakland on Feb. 2, limiting guard Kendrick Nunn — the nation’s second-leading scorer (26.1 ppg) — to 20 points via 3-of-22 shooting.
“He (Odiase) covers the whole the whole half-court on the defensive side,” Ferguson said.
In the same matchup, the Homewood-Flossmoor graduate showcased his improvement at the other end of the floor, totaling 19 points while shooting 8-of-8 from the field. He’s also producing 11.5 points per game over his last eight contests. Odiase notched just five points on three attempts in an 86-78 loss against Cleveland State on Saturday, though, as McClain said he lacked aggressiveness offensively.
Nevertheless, UIC sits only two games behind league-leading Northern Kentucky with four contests left, including a rematch against the Norse at home. Even if the Flames fail to make up any ground, Odiase saw the conference foe run the table in the Horizon League tournament as a No. 4 seed last season. Hence, he expressed confidence in the Flames’ chances to advance to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2004.
“We just need to take the right approach for the rest of the games (defensively), and when the (Horizon League) playoffs come, we need to be locked in,” Odiase said.