Last season the Fighting Illini men’s basketball team played one of the most demanding schedules in the country. Gonzaga, Iowa State, Xavier, Georgetown, Notre Dame, UNLV and Missouri were each featured on the 2018-19 schedule. All but one of those opponents — UNLV — defeated Illinois. It actually could’ve been even tougher (the Illini avoided playing Duke, Arizona, Auburn and San Diego State in the Maui Invitational). And I didn’t even mention the newly-introduced 20-game B1G season.
Year three for Brad Underwood is a big one. Illinois has actual expectations, with many analysts predicting a return to the NCAA Tournament. And there are plenty of opportunites for the Orange and Blue to load up on wins against lesser foes prior to B1G play.
I’ve lumped these 11 games into three categories: Absolutely Can’t Lose, Tweeners, and Most Meaningful. I’ll also offer a brief description on each opponent. Pitter patter, let’s get at her.
Absolutely Can’t Lose
- Nicholls: The Colonels finished 14-17 last season and tied for ninth in the Southland Conference. They also are without their top two scorers from a year ago. Transfer students comprise most of Nicholls’ roster, including former West Virginia guard D’Angelo Hunter. The Illini tend to do very well in season openers — I don’t expect the Colonels to buck that trend.
- The Citadel: Simply put, one of the worst programs in Division I. The Citadel, a military school in South Carolina, hasn’t produced a winning season since 2008-2009. Oh, and the Bulldogs lost their top three scorers. The Citadel was pretty good offensively (85.1 points/game last year) but worse defensively (86.1 ppg). Illinois will likely put up their highest point total of the season in this matchup.
- Hampton: The Pirates capped off an 18-17 season with a loss to Marshall in the semifinals of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament. Hampton boasts an elite scorer in senior guard Jermaine Marrow, whose 854 points (24.4 points per game) was just two shy of the program’s single-season scoring record. Marrow — who considered transferring during the offseason — enters 2019 within striking distance of Hampton’s all-time scoring mark, set by former NBA big man Rick Mahorn. Marrow will be a challenge to defend, but Illinois should be fine here.
- Lindenwood: This game, set for Nov. 26th in Champaign, was the last of the non-league dates to be filled. Lindenwood is a Division II school located in St. Charles, MO, a northwestern suburb of St. Louis. The Lions do have former Indiana guard Vijay Blackmon on their roster, but there is absolutely zero excuse to lose this one.
- North Carolina A&T: This matchup on December 29th is the Illini’s final tune-up before B1G play. The Aggies have had some recent success, with 39 victories the past two years. However, A&T’s top four scorers from last season have all moved on. The Christmas break games are always tricky (see: Florida Atlantic), but I don’t expect much resistance from the Aggies.
These are matchups where Illinois will likely be favored to win, but won’t sting too badly if they lose.
- @ Grand Canyon: The first of two “true” road games for the Illini and the second half of a home-and-home series against Antelopes. Illinois won a tight one in Champaign, 62-58, in 2017. In case you aren’t familiar, there were some Illini ties to GCU (former Illini Michael Finke came as a grad transfer last season to play with his younger brother, Tim, who has since transferred to Wright State). Dan Majerle has definitely made his mark coaching the Antelopes, winning 89 games the past four seasons. GCU was picked to finished second in the WAC behind New Mexico St., and added an impact transfer in point guard Jaylen Fisher. This is a mid-major who has not been shy about playing top competition.
- Hawaii: The Rainbow Warriors come to State Farm Center on November 18th. Head coach Eran Ganot has lifted Hawaii’s program to new heights, registering a school-record 77 wins in a four-season span. UH went 18-13 last season, including victories over Utah, Colorado, and Rhode Island. The Warriors were a pretty stingy defensive team, holding opponents to 68.7 points per game (by comparison, the Illini allowed 75 points/game). The lengthy trip to Illinois could adversely affect them, but Hawaii is a well-coached squad and will be prepared to play.
- Old Dominion: What if I told you that the Monarchs are the only non-conference opponent that made the Big Dance last year? ODU compiled 26 victories and a Conference USA Tournament title before losing to Purdue in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Illini could face their stiffest defensive test of the non-B1G season; ODU held teams to fewer than 61 points/game and just 32% from three-point range in ‘18-19.
These are the wins that will satisfy Fighting Illini fans the most.
- @ Arizona: Illinois travels to Tucson on November 10th. The Wildcats finished 17-15 overall and a meager 8-10 in the Pac-12. Arizona should be going dancing again this year thanks to some major additions. Grad transfers Stone Gettings & Max Hazzard, along with five-star freshmen Josh Green & Nico Mannion, join a supremely talented core including Devonaire Doutrive, Chase Jeter, and Brandon Williams. This roster is stacked and may be the Illini’s most difficult opponent all season, B1G included. No matter what happens, at least we’ll always have 2005.
- Miami (FL): Illinois will host the Hurricanes on Dec. 2nd as part of the yearly B1G/ACC Challenge. Miami has won two straight against the Illini, including a 63-59 victory in the 2013 NCAA Tournament. Leading scorer Chris Lykes is back, and the Canes loaded up on transfers, adding former Cincinnati center Nysier Brooks, former Oklahoma guard Kameron McGusty and Florida transfer Keith Stone. Jim Larranaga’s team should be markedly better than last year’s 18-loss squad.
- Missouri: The Braggin’ Rights game had lost its luster during the middle part of this decade. But the turf war has been reignited the past few seasons, with both the Illini and Tigers competing for many of the same players. Parker Braun, Mario McKinney, Javon Pickett & Jeremiah Tilmon were all Illinois targets or commits that wound up in Columbia. Oh, and there’s that whole Mark Smith thing. Yeah, I’d say fans are gassed up for this rivarly again. The passion and intensity are back. It means more now.
Last season an 8-3 non-conference record would’ve been sensational. This year? Anything worse than that will be viewed as an immense disappointment. There aren’t enough marquee games to lift up the Illini’s overall strength of schedule — especially if they lose to both ‘Zona and Miznoz (yuck). The Big Dance is a realistic goal for Illinois. Cleaning up in the non-conference season will be critical to the team’s future success.
How many non-conference wins will the Illini have?
This poll is closed