It appears Fighting Illini basketball has found their next opponent for the annual neutral site game in Chicago. According to FanRag Sports’ Jon Rothstein, Illinois will play New Mexico State at the United Center; an official time and date has yet to be determined. Additionally, the event is reportedly intended to be a celebration of Lou Henson, who coached both programs during his Hall of Fame career.
The 2016 United Center matchup — dubbed the ‘Chicago Legends Classic’ — was different than in years prior because it featured a double-header with Illinois facing BYU, and Northwestern taking on Dayton. There’s no word on whether or not the 2017 edition will be following a similar format.
Obviously, New Mexico State isn’t exactly the sexiest opponent for this showcase, and that’s a trend for the United Center contests now. These teams really have no business playing outside of Champaign, and the athletic department may have quite a hard time selling tickets because of it. It’d almost make more sense at this point to scrap the Chicago games entirely in favor of some home-and-home series with other Power 5 programs.
But fan appeal aside, this could be a nice non-conference RPI boost for the Orange and Blue next season. New Mexico State currently sits at 25-5 this year and they rank No. 97 overall in the latest KenPom rankings. Ian Baker, the Aggies’ best player (16.7 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 4.1 APG), will be graduating this Spring, however he’s the only senior on their roster. So it stands to reason that Paul Weir’s squad could be even better next Winter.