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Illinois Basketball Schedule Preview: The B1G

With the conference in flux, the Illini could have a big year.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Indiana Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Last week I broke down Illinois’ non-conference schedule. With only three Power 5 opponents it is vital that the Illini handle their business outside of league play. The Big Ten is a grind and no win is guaranteed. There is one clear-cut favorite, but there are several teams that are emerging, rebuilding or unsure of what they have. This week I’ll provide a glimpse of the Fighting Illini’s Big Ten opponents in chronological order.

  • Maryland (2018-19 Record: 23-11; 13-7 B1G): Illinois begins conference play in College Park on Dec. 7. Maryland has a fairly young team (five freshmen, five sophomores) and lost center Bruno Fernando to the NBA. But the Terps bring back senior guard Anthony Cowan, who’s started all 99 games the past three seasons. Cowan isn’t a great shooter (just 39 percent from the field in ‘18-19), but averages about 15 points per game. He’s also Maryland’s leader in assists and rebounds well for a player his size. I’m exicted to see Kofi Cockburn go against Maryland’s 7-foot-2 freshman center Chol Marial. Unfortunately, we’ll likely have to wait until the rematch in Champaign Feb. 7, as Marial is recuperating from surgery to repair stress fractures in both legs. The Terrapins are picked to finish second in the B1G, and it’s easy to see why — they have depth, length, size, athleticism, make free throws, and are sound defensively.
  • Michigan (30-7; 15-5 B1G): Illinois hosts the Wolverines on Dec. 11. Michigan is projected to finish fifth in the B1G in Juwan Howard’s first season. Isaiah Livers, Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske return, but the Wolverines lost Iggy Brazdeikis, Charles Matthews and Jordan Poole to the pros. Coach John Beilein leaned heavily on those six players, so a lot of quality minutes will be up for grabs. Defense was Michigan’s forte last season, holding opponents to 58 points per game on less than 40 percent shooting (29 percent from three-point range). It’s rare that a new head coach comes in year one without a bit of a dip, but the Wolverines are definitely good enough to make another deep tourney run. These two teams meet again in Ann Arbor on Jan. 25.
  • Michigan State (32-7; 16-4 B1G): Illinois visits East Lansing Jan. 2 and hosts the Spartans Feb. 11. It should come as no surprise that Michigan State — ranked No. 1 to begin the year — is the preseason pick to win the conference. Sparty reached the Final Four for the eighth time under Tom Izzo, falling to Texas Tech in the National Semifinals. 6-foot-1 senior Cassius Winston (18.8 points per game, 7.5 assists per game) is the Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year and an AP Preseason All-American. Oh...and Michigan State signed top-50 recruit Mark “Rocket” Watts to be his heir apparent. The Spartans also added four-star forward and Naperville native Malik Hall. However, they will be without senior Joshua Langford indefinitely due to a leg injury. Michigan State was a terrific shooting team last year (48 percent FG, 37.8 percent 3-point) and pounded the boards, out-rebounding opponents by 8.8 per game. It’s going take an amazing effort to beat the Spartans again.
NCAA Basketball: Final Four-Semifinals-Michigan State vs Texas Tech
Michigan State guard Cassius Winston (#5) was voted the Preseason B1G Player of the Year.
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
  • Purdue (26-10; 16-4 B1G): The Boilermakers have been picked to finish fourth in the B1G, but have to replace three starters from last season’s Elite Eight team (Ryan Cline, Carsen Edwards, Grady Eifert). Purdue boasts an imposing frontcourt with sophomore Trevion Williams (6-foot-9, 270) & junior center Matt Haarms (7-foot-3, 250). Chicago-area native Nojel Eastern was very solid against B1G competition, averaging 8.6 points and 6.6 rebounds in conference play. He should see a serious uptick in his offensive numbers now with Edwards gone. Matt Painter’s squad comes to Champaign on Jan. 5, with a rematch 16 days later in West Lafayette.
  • Wisconsin (23-11; 14-6 B1G): The Fighting Illini just snapped their nine-game football losing streak against the Badgers (perhaps you heard about it), but the basketball team is looking to stop an even longer skid. Wisconsin has beaten Illinois 15 straight times on the hardwood, dating back to January 2011. This could finally be the year the streak comes to an end. There are big changes in Madison with the losses of Ethan Happ & Khalil Iverson. D’Mitrik Trice is the Badgers’ leading returning scorer, and the onus will be on him, as well as Kobe King and Nate Reuvers, to lead the way for Wiscy. Reuvers reminds me a lot of Frank Kaminsky, and Badger fans will be ecstatic if he makes the same leap his junior year that Kaminsky did. Wisconsin, picked sixth in the B1G, will mix it up with the Illini on Jan. 8 at the Kohl Center.
NCAA Basketball: Penn State at Wisconsin Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports
  • Rutgers (14-17; 7-13 B1G): We’ll get two editions of #Illinutgers this year — Jan. 11 in Champaign and Feb. 15 in Piscataway. The Scarlet Knights were picked 12th in the conference, ahead of only Nebraska and Northwestern. Leading scorer Eugene Omoruyi transferred to Oregon, but Rutgers brings back three key contributors — guards Geo Baker & Montez Mathis and forward Ron Harper Jr. Coach Steve Pikiell also added an in-state three-star point guard, Paul Mulcahy. The Scarlet Knights need to shoot better from the free throw line (63.1% in ‘18-19) and three-point range (31.2%) if they hope to take a serious leap in the B1G.
  • Northwestern (13-19; 4-16 B1G): The Wildcats are in the Big Ten basement, picked dead last in the league. Head coach Chris Collins will always be remembered fondly in Evanston as the one who guided Northwestern to its first-ever NCAA Tournament in 2017. But the Wildcats have regressed in the two seasons since. The team’s top three scorers — Vic Law, Dererk Pardon & Ryan Taylor — are gone, and Jordan Ash (Wright State), Barret Benson (Southern Illinois) & Aaron Falzon (Quinnipiac) each transferred. The rest of the roster is very inexperienced; Anthony Gaines, Miller Kopp, and A.J. Turner are the only returning players who averaged double-digit minutes last season. One really fascinating story is that of grad transfer Pat Spencer, who joined Northwestern after spending four years at an All-American lacrosse player. All signs are pointing to a rough year for the Cats, who play the Illini twice — Jan. 18 at SFC and Feb. 27 at Welsh-Ryan.
  • Minnesota (22-14; 9-11 B1G): Following back-to-back road games versus Purdue and Michigan the Illini host the Golden Gophers on Jan. 30. Pitino The Younger guided Minnesota back to the NCAA Tournament last season, losing to Michigan State in the Round of 32. The Gophers will be tasked with replacing the losses of All-Big Ten players Amir Coffey & Jordan Murphy, as well as key contributors Dupree McBrayer & Isaiah Washington. Pitt transfer Marcus Carr & Vanderbilt transfer Payton Willis join a young core led by sophomores Gabe Kalscheur & Daniel Otoru. The Illini frontcourt of Giorgi Bezhanishvili & Kofi Cockburn will be tested against a Minnesota roster with five players 6-foot-9 or taller.
  • Iowa (23-12; 10-10 B1G): The Hawkeyes are projected to finish eighth in the B1G, right behind the Illini. Coach Fran McCaffery’s squad advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season, but there are major questions surrounding the Hawkeyes entering 2019. Big men Jack Nunge & Cordell Pemsl were redshirted last year due to injury. Nicholas Baer graduated. Tyler Cook left for the NBA draft. Maishe Dailey & Isaiah Moss transferred. Senior Jordan Bohannon could miss the season after undergoing hip surgery. Despite these blows, Iowa does have a good core coming back. Starting center Luka Garza is the team’s leading returning scorer. Guard Connor McCaffery led the Hawkeyes in assists 15 times. Sophomore Joe Wieskamp is the team’s top three-point shooter (42.4%), and was named to the watch list for the 2020 Jerry West Award. And the Hawkeyes added depth with grad transfer guard Bakari Evelyn. Iowa smashed Illinois twice last season, winning by a combined 45 points and shooting 27-of-44 from beyond the arc. The Illini will get two chances to exact revenge — Feb. 20 in Iowa City and March 8 in Champaign.
NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Iowa
Iowa guard Joe Wieskamp was 8-8 from the field in last year’s regular season game versus the Illini.
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports
  • Penn State (14-18; 7-13 B1G): Patrick Chambers enters year nine (!) as head coach of the Nittany Lions. After 26 wins and an NIT title in 2018 Penn State finished tied for 10th in conference play last season. Not much more is expected this year, as the Nittany Lions are picked ninth in the B1G (though Andy Katz has projected them to make the NCAA Tournament). Rasir Bolton & Josh Reaves — PSU’s top three-point shooters — have moved on, but stud forward Lamar Stevens returns to Happy Valley for his senior season. Stevens is the team’s leading scorer (19.9 points per game) and rebounder (7.7), and has started 104 straight games, the longest active streak in Division I. He also dominated Illinois last season, with a combined 41 points and 14 rebounds in two games — both Penn State wins. There’s just something about the Nittany Lions that gives the Illini fits. Don’t overlook this road matchup Feb. 18th.
  • Nebraska (19-17; 6-14 B1G): The Cornhuskers and Illini square off Feb. 24 at State Farm Center. Nebrasketball has undergone a major overhaul in the offseason. Only two (!) players remain from last year’s side, Thorir Thorbjarnarson and Dachon Burke, a transfer from Robert Morris who sat out the season. Fred Hoiberg was hired as head coach, replacing Tim Miles. “The Mayor” isn’t particularly fond of traditional recruiting, so he’s implemented a strategy that served him well while coaching at Iowa State: transfers, transfers, and more transfers. Former Marquette & Florida Gulf Coast guard Haanif Cheatham will be suiting up for the Huskers this year, as will Seattle grad transfer Matej Kavacs. Hoiberg also brought in two players from the JUCO ranks, Jervay Green & Cam Mack (and three other D1 transfers that won’t be eligible until next season — Dalano Banton, Shamiel Stevenson, Derrick Walker). Three-point shooting was a huge part of Hoiberg’s Cyclone teams, so Nebraska could be a problem if it can make shots from beyond the arch.
  • Indiana (19-16; 8-12 B1G): IU was probably the most befuddling team in the conference last season. Indiana inexplicably beat Michigan State twice last year, but also went through a stretch of 12 losses in 13 games (though they swept Illinois, because of course they did). Head coach Archie Miller has tried to rebuild this Hoosiers roster with Hoosiers; six in-state products have signed with the team in Miller’s two recruiting classes, including Indiana Mr. Basketball winners Romeo Langford and Trayce Jackson-Davis. Langford is now in the NBA, and Jackson-Davis was a top-20 recruit in 2019. Starters Al Durham, Rob Phinisee & Justin Smith return for the Hoosiers, and 6-foot-11 Butler transfer Joey Brunk will add experience and bulk to their frontcourt. I’m honestly surprised that IU has been picked 10th in the league — I expect them to land in the top half of the B1G by season’s end, which should result in another NCAA berth. The Hoosiers and Illini meet at the O.G. Assembly Hall on March 1.
  • Ohio State (20-15; 8-12 B1G): The Buckeyes were a somewhat surprising entry in the NCAA Tournament, but scored a first-round upset before losing to Houston. The media is very high on the Buckeyes this year, with good reason. Chris Holtmann’s squad is flush with talent. C.J. Jackson & Keyshawn Woods depart Columbus, and junior Musa Jallow will miss the early part of the season because of ankle surgery. But the Buckeyes cleaned up in the offseason, adding four-star forward Alonzo Gaffney, Iowa Mr. Basketball D.J. Carton and two-time Illinois Mr. Basketball E.J. Liddell (yeah, we’re not mad about that AT ALL). These fantastic freshmen will join a lineup that includes Andre Wesson, Kaleb Wesson, and Luther Muhammad. This team doesn’t have an obvious flaw and this game could be a tantalizing late-season showdown. Ohio State hosts the Fighting Illini either March 4th or March 5th.
NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Houston vs Ohio State Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

Most college basketball media are forecasting an Illini resurgence. Obviously, we’ll know way more about this team in January or February than we will in November or December. Nonetheless, this could be a very unpredictable year in the B1G, and a top-seven finish will more than likely secure an NCAA Tournament bid for the first time since 2013.


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