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UIC’s uphill climb aided by mix of new, returning talent

Updated: December 11, 2012 6:04AM

Coach Howard Moore begins UIC’s men’s basketball season on a sledding hill near a football field.

Each player must scale the hill near Soldier Field in the early-morning hours — again and again.

‘‘It’s mental toughness,’’ senior guard Gary Talton said. ‘‘When we get to the dog days of the season, you have the mental toughness to face it.’’

Conquering the mental challenges of a still-rebuilding program remains paramount for the Flames as Chicago native Moore enters his third season as coach.

‘‘It’s something I learned from coach [Bo] Ryan,’’ Moore said of his mentor at Wisconsin. ‘‘I really like to challenge our guys mentally. When it’s February and the body is tired, what will be the one hurdle allowing you to overcome it?

‘‘Our players crushed the hill this fall. And the last run, we run it together as a team. Afterward, Gary said, ‘This is just the start, Coach.’ ’’

The Flames hope to rebound from an 8-22 season and a 3-15 Horizon League record. Moore will rely on four returning starters, including point guard Talton, who averaged 11.3 points and 3.3 assists, and senior guard Daniel Barnes, a three-point specialist.

Junior forward Hayden Humes (8.2 ppg, 5.6 rebounds) and sophomore forward Marc Brown (6.7 ppg, 3.0 rebounds) also return. They will be the highest-scoring returning backcourt duo in the Horizon League.

Two newcomers could help immediately. Center Josh Crittle, a Bellwood native who transferred from Central Florida, and sophomore guard Joey Miller, a transfer from Eastern Illinois, were given immediate eligibility, Miller under a hardship waiver and Crittle because he’s in graduate school.

But team play is what Moore will stress, especially on the defensive end.

‘‘Defense, defense, defense,’’ he said. ‘‘We lost 12 games last season by five points or less. Games come down to defense and taking care of the ball. You have to value each possession and defend.

‘‘The four returning players will be the first ones I look to because they understand the principles of our work plan. The newcomers will follow the leader.’’

After two seasons, Moore looks to a more stabilized program.

‘‘A lot of things come up that you may not foresee,’’ he said of his first head coaching position. ‘‘The biggest thing we had to overcome was the culture of [not] winning and putting that winning culture back in place. It doesn’t stop on the court. ‘Did you fail a test? Are you living right day to day?’

‘‘We feel we’re getting to that point. We feel comfortable in our skin.’’

The changing culture may have helped in gaining Kelsey Barlow, who transferred from Purdue and will have to sit out this season but will be allowed to practice.

Stability has been important for the current players, Talton said.

‘‘This will be the first time I’ll have the same coach for two years,’’ said Talton, who made the Horizon League all newcomer-team after coming from Mountain View (Texas) Community College. Talton led the Flames in scoring, field goals made (122), free-throw percentage (.867), made free throws (78) and assists (3.3).

‘‘Everyone in our league has improved,’’ Moore said. ‘‘The biggest thing for us will be improving every day.’’

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