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An Early Look At Illinois Basketball’s Non-Conference Schedule

Illinois’ non-conference schedule is set. Let’s set way-too-early expectations.

It’s late July and Illinois Basketball finally has a complete roster.

The Big Ten has expanded its conference schedule to a 20-game slate, which will shrink the non-conference schedule for the Illini. Thanks to Jon Rothstein’s investigative journalism, we had the majority of the nonconference opponents nailed down.

Everyone has their niche. Thank heavens for Jon Rothstein.

Illinois is going to have one of the toughest schedules in the country. Typically, Illinois has played about 32 regular games per season. In essence, two cupcakes will be replaced by quality Big Ten opponents... or Rutgers.

Our friend Mr. Rothstein from earlier also astutely pointed out that Illinois has seven high major opponents lined up for next year which will be more than just about any peer in college hoops.

As of July 31, Illinois has released the official schedule.

The only game Jon Rothstein didn’t clue us in on was Mississippi Valley State. Be better, Jon.

Illinois is coming off its worst season this millenium and 75 percent of its roster is made up of newcomers. It’s going to be an exciting season, but history would tell us there’s going to be a learning curve for this group. So how tough is the schedule?

These games aren’t in order, but we add the cumulative non-conference record as the article progresses.

The Cupcakes

We will do a full preview of these teams once the season is here, but let’s take a look at the quick facts.

Mississippi Valley St.: The Delta Devils won four games last year and haven’t won 10+ since 2012. They go on the road their entire non-conference slate to get a check. Illinois should clobber them.

FAU: Finished 11th in CUSA last year with a 12-19 record. Losing five seniors to graduation, including its top three scorers and two tallest players. Whatever you do, don’t lose to them.

Evansville: Finished seventh in the MVC with a record of 17-15. They lose their best player and 20-point scorer Ryan Taylor to Northwestern via transfer. They return a bulk of their roster and present a better challenge than FAU, but Illinois should be fine.

ETSU: Finished second in the Southern Conference with a record of 25-9. They lose eight seniors, including five of their top six scorers. They probably have some older transfers who will replenish those guys, so it’s tough to know how good they’ll be. Out of the cupcakes, this will be Illinois’ biggest test.

Let’s assume Illinois schedules two more cupcakes at the SFC and wins them both. Illinois and Brad Underwood can’t afford to lose games they should win. They need to build momentum and keep the fanbase confident about the future.

Non-conference Record: 4-0

Gavitt Games

Illinois drew Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown squad for the 2018 Gavitt Games. Georgetown is another rebuilding program in its second year under its new head coach. The Hoyas return three starters, including leading scorer and double-double big man Jessie Govan from last year’s 15-15 team. They also added college basketball’s next polarizing dunking white guy in Mac McClung.

So that should be fun.

It should be an even matchup, but Illinois has the home-court advantage and Underwood should be able to coach circles around Ewing.

Non-Conference Record: 5-0

Maui Invitational

This has always been my favorite non-conference event in college basketball. There are a million preseason tournaments now that are trying to duplicate the magic that Maui has found. 2018 will also field the strongest teams ever with host school Chaminade no longer participating.

Duke signed the top three freshmen in the class and are a Final Four favorite. Gonzaga returns key players and looks like a top-15 team. Bruce Pearl has proved that if you cheat enough, you can even make Auburn a decent basketball program. They will likely contend at the top of the SEC this year. I don’t think a young Illinois squad has much of a chance against these squads.

Arizona loses a bunch of players to the pros and lost a bunch of recruits amidst the FBI scandal and Xavier loses its coach, but those are still two powerhouse programs. I don’t think it’s likely, but there are probably a few parallel universes where Illinois could pull out a win against one of these teams.

San Diego State and Iowa State round out the field. I have to be honest, I’m not really up to date on SDSU’s 2018-19 season outlook, but I’m assuming they have a bunch of long pesky defenders and athletes who can’t really shoot like they always do. Iowa State brings in a lot of new transfers and freshmen after rebuilding last year, similar to Illinois. (And who wouldn’t love to see Ayo vs. THT/George Conditt in the first month of the season?) If Illinois can pull out a win, I would think it would be against one of these two.

Try to get a win in Maui. Anything more is gravy. And if Illinois goes 0-3 that’s okay. The competition will be a great experience for the new guys and should make the transition to conference play a little smoother.

Non-Conference Record: 6-2

ACC/B1G Challenge

Illinois draws Notre Dame for the second time in four years. Illinois lost by five at the opening of the renovated State Farm Center last time they played. ND loses key seniors Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell, two guys who have anchored successful seasons and tournament runs for the Irish for the last few years. They do bring in four top-100 recruits to replace them. The Irish will be projected to finish in the middle of the pack in a strong ACC and should be favored at home against the young Illini.

Non-Conference Record: 6-3


The Rebels lost three of their four leading scorers, including freshman seven footer Brandon McCoy. They bring back a nice core of freshmen who will turn into sophomores, coming off a 20-win season. This is the return trip of a home-and-home series so I’d expect the line to be pretty even. This is a game the Illini should have circled on their non-conference slate.

Non-Conference Record: 7-3

Braggin’ Rights

Jontay Porter and Jeremiah Tilmon are a year older and are going to be an incredible challenge for a young Illinois front line. Porter would have been a first-round pick if he had stayed in this year’s draft and Tilmon has the potential to be a first-rounder in 2019. Puryear and Geist will return and start as well, but the Tigers currently lack dynamic playmaking and guard scoring. These two teams both create matchup nightmares for each other, so it could be a close game or a bit of blowout in either direction, and I wouldn’t be terribly surprised.

Non-Conference Record: 8-3 (why not?)

This schedule is a brute. 7-4 would be a great outcome.

If Illinois can grow up quickly and have a nice Big Ten season, their strength of schedule will help them a ton when teams start comparing resumes for the postseason. This is a fun schedule, these are the high profile games that Illinois Basketball should be a part of. Time will tell if they are ready for it, but at the very least we will learn a lot about this young team right away.


How many games does Illinois win in non-conference?

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  • 5%
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