University of Illinois-Chicago coach Howard Moore saw two ways of building his program when he was hired last year.
The first was to gather as many talented transfers and junior college players and quickly jumpstart the Flames.
The second was to hit the recruiting trail and find players who fit his program best. That would take longer and likely mean early struggles, but it was the plan Moore chose because he believed it was the road to the most sustainable success.
“We want to establish a winning program instead of having a winning team every so often,” said Moore prior to the first day of the 2011-2012 season.
Now, Moore and UIC are in Year 2 of that building project. And since Moore wasn’t hired until August of 2010, there wasn’t a whole lot of construction in Year 1. This season is where Moore looks to create his foundation.
With that, UIC fans will require rosters in hand at least early in the season. The Flames welcomed nine new players to this year’s squad, including seven freshmen from his 2011 recruiting class, one junior college player and one transfer from Toledo.
The goal with so many new faces was to bring in a higher level of talent, but also have a chance to teach them and watch them cultivate over the following years.
“What you’re trying to do allows you to change the mindset, plant the seeds on what you want to become as a program,” Moore said. “Them coming in bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, you don’t want to say brain-wash, but you really want to instill in them what you expect from your program on a daily basis. That’s the fun part of it. We went this direction instead of getting transfers or junior college players. We want four to five years to invest in the process and grow.”
As with investing money, the dividends for UIC may still be a few seasons away. A player like Toledo transfer Hayden Humes is expected to make an impact early, but it is likely going to take most of the newcomers some time.
“You always want to be successful going into a season,” Moore said. “The level of success may be different for us. We’re looking for improvement. Last season was the worst I’ve had as a player or a coach. We want to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
Last year was full of trials for Moore and his team, which went 7-24 overall and 2-16 in the Horizon League. With his late starting date, Moore always felt he was playing catch up with the season while also trying to learn the ropes as a first-time head coach.
“I had no idea about the dynamics of the program, trying to figure out what type of players I had, what to expect from the group,” Moore said. “Now, I have a better feeling for the guys. I feel a lot better where I am today than a year ago and have a better idea where the program is.”
Last season wasn’t without it successes. None was bigger than upsetting Illinois at the United Center. Moore was hopeful it was just the beginning for his team, but it was actually the end. The Flames went 2-17 the rest of the year.
“I think you’re excited about a win like that,” Moore said. “You got to make sure that’s not your championship. That’s what I told our guys. That’s Dec. 18. We have a long way to go. The team at the time wasn’t equipped for that type of success. We weren’t capable of learning that’s a great win, but it doesn’t make your season.”
While Moore had no control over his roster or his 2010 recruiting class, last year still hit him hard. With more time this offseason, he put it to use and sought to make himself a better coach.
Moore turned to Stan Van Gundy, Bo Ryan, Dick Bennett and other coaches for advice. He reviewed last season thoroughly. He made sure he and his assistants were on the same page. He gave a closer look at his current players and what he still needed to accomplish in recruiting. He tried to leave no stone unturned.
“You look at one of the greatest coaches in basketball, Coach K, [Duke] coach [Mike] Krzyzewski, and he’s still looking to improve as a coach,” Moore said. “All he’s done, all he’s accomplished in his program, and he’s still on a mission to see how he can be better. If Coach K can humble himself to say, ‘I don’t have all the answers,’ coach Howard Moore better be in the same mold.
“It was really a lot of evaluation on every level of the program, including myself in terms of what we need to do to better and improve every aspect of the program. I think we’re on the right page there and the right path is there.”