Though the Fighting Illini haven't gone as far to release their entire non-conference schedule, we now know a solid chunk of it, including whom Illinois will face while playing at the Prairie Capital Convention Center. With games against teams like Providence, Notre Dame, and possibly Iowa State, next season certainly won't be a walk in the park. Illinois will likely play 6 or more teams in the non-conference slate that played in the NCAA Tournament last season. Here's a look at some of the best non-conference games that we'll see, and it's up for you to decide which one will be the best.
Nov. 13 vs. North Florida
Don't sleep on this one. Right out of the gates, the Ospreys may be mistaken for an easy first win of the season, but don't forget the way the Illini barely escaped Georgia Southern on opening night last year. North Florida, like Georgia Southern, is one of the better mid-major teams in the country. The Atlantic Sun Champions found themselves in the NCAA Tournament last season before falling to Robert Morris in Dayton. A solid 23-12 record included a huge victory in West Lafayette over Purdue. The Ospreys managed to tightly contend with Iowa and Northwestern as well.
North Florida will return 4 of their 5 leading scorers from last season and can certainly expect to be back in the NCAA Tournament. Illinois will be more than capable of winning this basketball game, especially in Springfield. That being said, the Fighting Illini can't sleep on an early season matchup like this. Every year, one under-the-radar team manages to give Illinois a huge scare. Last year it was Georgia Southern, the year before, IPFW, and before that, Gardner-Webb. Hopefully, John Groce and company know what's in stake heading into their opening game.
Nov. 18 @ Providence
As part of the Big East v. Big Ten Challenge, Illinois will travel to Rhode Island to face off with the Friars. Providence was impressive last season, making the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year. LaDontae Henton led the way for Providence with nearly 20 points per game, and luckily for the Illini, he's since graduated. That being said, the Friars still have a number of weapons to fear, including rising star Kris Dunn. At 15.6 points per game last season, the sophomore Dunn exploded and proved himself capable of taking over this Providence Friar team. The Fighting Illini will also need to look out for rising sophomore Ben Bentil who's a capable scorer and rebounder.
After losing both Tyler Harris and Paschal Chukwu to the transfer market, Providence seems a little bit less dangerous than it had immediately following the end of the season. That being said, Dunn was expected to turn pro, and his return gives Ed Cooley a legitimate weapon. As I still see them as a likely NCAA Tournament team, they're more likely to barely slip in rather than earning another 6 seed. Illinois can beat the Friars if they shut down Kris Dunn. He will be somewhat of a one-man-show, and Illinois should have the weapons to take down Providence in enemy territory.
Nov. 28 vs. Iowa State/Virginia Tech
If this one turns out the way we all expect it to, we could see a huge matchup against a Cyclone team that could be ranked in the Top 5 next season. As part of the Emerald Coast Classic, Illinois will face UAB and move on to play either the winner or loser of the Virginia Tech vs. Iowa State matchup. Iowa State could be one of the toughest teams Illinois will see all year long. Though losing head coach Fred Hoiberg to the NBA, Iowa State still has a load of talent that will take the court in Ames next season. Some of the best returning players include Monte Morris, Jameel McKay, Georges Niang, and Naz Long.
This would be the point in the season where Illinois' frontcourt would be truly tested. Can forwards Mike Thorne, Leron Black, and Darius Paul handle the dominant forces of Jameel McKay and Georges Niang of the Cyclones? While the backcourt matchups would be a little bit more even, Iowa State would still be the clear favorite, and an upset would pay huge dividends for the Illini in trying to make it back to the NCAA Tournament.
Dec. 2 vs. Notre Dame
If you aren't excited for this game, then something must be wrong with you. What better way to re-open the State Farm Center from renovation than a Big Ten vs. ACC Challenge matchup against the Fighting Irish? Though Notre Dame will lose stars Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton, it will return some key players in Steve Vasturia, Zach Auguste, and Demetrius Jackson. The SFC will be loud, it should be a relatively even matchup, and the Illini have a chance to walk away from the Big Ten vs. ACC Challenge with a very solid victory. This one will be fun.
- Nov. 15 vs. North Dakota State
- Nov. 27 vs. UAB
- Braggin' Rights Game