The national media is quite enamored with the Fighting Illini. Many outlets have picked Illinois to finish atop the Big Ten. But as we know, this conference is stacked. The Illini won’t be the pleasant surprise they were last year. They have a lot to prove, and the league schedule will test their mental and physical toughness. Here’s how the Big Ten slate stacks up, in chronological order.
Minnesota Golden Gophers (2019-20 Record: 15-16; 8-12 Big Ten): Illinois tips off Big Ten play Dec. 15 at State Farm Center against Minnesota. Don’t let the Gophers’ 2019 record fool you. They were a very competitive team, losing SEVEN games by five or fewer points. The Gophers lost big man Daniel Oturu to the NBA Draft, but gained former Drake center Liam Robbins, who was granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA. Robbins was a force in the middle for the Bulldogs, averaging 14 points, seven rebounds and three blocks per game last season. After Robbins, though, Minnesota’s frontcourt is very unproven. Backcourt mates Gabe Kalscheur and Marcus Carr are returning for Richard Pitino. Kalscheur paced the Gophers in steals (31) and led the Big Ten in triples (76). The 6-foot-2 Carr is one of the most complete players in the conference — he topped the B1G in minutes played, finished second in assists and averaged nearly 5.5 rebounds per game. The Fighting Illini head to Minneapolis on Feb. 20 to complete the home-and-home series.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights (20-11; 11-9 Big Ten): Rutgers was poised to reach the Big Dance for the first time since 1991 before COVID-19 concerns ended the Scarlet Knights’ season. Head coach Steve Pikiell has plenty of talent coming back, including top scorers Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker. Harper torched the Illini in last year’s matchup in Piscataway, shooting 11-of-14, hitting all five of his triples and pouring in 27 points. Rutgers is predicted to finish in the middle of the pack in the B1G, which should be enough to land it in the NCAA Tournament for real. The Scarlet Knights were almost unbeatable at home last year, and they’ll host Illinois Dec. 20.
Penn State Nittany Lions (21-10; 11-9 Big Ten): The Nittany Lions reached nearly-unprecedented heights in 2019-20. Penn State ended up third in the Big Ten in scoring (75.1 ppg) and fifth in the league standings — its highest finish since joining the conference in 1992-93. The Nittany Lions’ 11 Big Ten victories were their second-most since entering the league. Head coach Pat Chambers stepped down in October following allegations of inappropriate conduct. Lamar Stevens has also moved on, but many key contributors return, including Myreon Jones (13.3 ppg) Myles Dread (65 made threes), and sixth man Izaiah Brockington. Senior center John Harrar doesn’t score a ton, but makes the most of his chances, converting 62.7% percent of his shot attempts. It’s just hard for me to envision Penn State climbing up near the top of the Big Ten again this season. The Illini visit Happy Valley Dec. 23, with the rematch at State Farm Center on Jan. 20.
Indiana Hoosiers (20-12; 9-11 Big Ten): Archie Miller has yet to take IU to the heights Hoosier fans usually expect, but one thing Indiana fans can’t complain about is Miller’s ability to recruit. The Hoosiers wound up with the second-ranked class in the Big Ten (16th nationally), landing a quartet of top-150 signees in Trey Galloway, Anthony Leal, Jordan Geronimo & Khristian Lander. They’ll join Big Ten POTY contender and preseason All-American Trayce Jackson-Davis, who was one of only four freshmen to lead his team in scoring (13.5 ppg), rebounding (8.4 rpg), free throw percentage (68.5%) and blocks (59) last season. On paper, IU should undoubtedly finish in the top half of the B1G. The Fighting Illini meet the Hoosiers twice — Dec. 26 in Champaign and Feb. 2 in Bloomington.
Purdue Boilermakers (16-15; 9-11 Big Ten): Matt Painter, now in his 16th (!) season as head coach of his alma mater, has made a habit of outperforming expectations. He’ll be tasked with doing so again this season, as the Boilermakers are projected to finish in the bottom half of the B1G. Two starters — Matt Haarms (BYU) and Nojel Eastern (Howard) — transferred out, and two more regulars — Jahaad Proctor & Evan Boudreaux — graduated. Purdue will have to lean on guards Eric Hunter Jr. and Sasha Stefanovic. Hunter started 30 of 31 games for the Boilermakers in 2019-20, finishing second on the team in scoring (10.6 PPG), assists (82), steals (32) and three-pointers made (43). Stefanovic was Purdue’s leading long distance shooter, canning 64 triples on 167 attempts (38.3%). But perhaps the most intriguing matchup from Illinois’ perspective will be seeing Kofi Cockburn mano a mano against Purdue’s Trevion Williams. The 6-foot-10, 265-pounder led the Boilermakers in points and rebounds a season ago and is preseason All-Big Ten this year. The Illini defeated Purdue by a combined 43 points last year and start 2021 by hosting the Boilermakers on Jan. 2.
Northwestern Wildcats (8-23; 3-17 Big Ten): Most prognosticators expected Chris Collins’ crew to have a bad year...just not quite “losing to Merrimack, Radford & Hartford at home” bad. In fact, if not for an upset victory over Penn State in the regular-season finale, Northwestern went winless against every other team not named Nebraska. One of the few bright spots for the Wildcats was forward Miller Kopp. The 6-foot-7 swingman led the team in scoring (13.5 PPG), threes (65), and free throw percentage (89.6). True freshman Boo Buie finished third in scoring (10.3 PPG) and second in assists (63). Overall, Northwestern returns four of its top five scorers from a season ago, so the team will have much more continuity. It may not result in too many extra wins — it’s still picked last in the league — but the ‘Cats don’t quit. The Illini swept Northwestern last season, but only won both games by a combined 12 points. These two teams square off twice again this season — Jan. 7 at Welsh-Ryan Arena and Feb. 16 at SFC.
Maryland Terrapins (24-7; 14-6 Big Ten): Coming off last season’s share of the Big Ten title, it appears that Maryland is undergoing a bit of a rebuild in 2020. Anthony Cowan graduated and stud center Jalen Smith was an NBA lottery pick. Mark Turgeon’s Terrapins have a trio of guards that can replace Cowan’s production — Eric Ayala, Darryl Morsell, and Aaron Wiggins — but who will man the middle in Smith’s absence is a serious cause for concern. Boston College transfer Jairus Hamilton should provide some help right away. 7-foot-2 Sudanese center Chol Marial is an intriguing post prospect but spent most of last season recovering from injury. I would expect Illinois to throw it inside often to Giorgi & Kofi in this matchup. The Terps travel to Champaign on Jan. 10.
Nebraska Cornhuskers (7-25; 2-18 Big Ten): Fred Hoiberg tore this program down to the studs in his debut season, and it reflected in the Huskers’ record. Nebrasketball dropped 17 straight games to end last season. The Huskers are picked near the bottom of the league again, and it’s another massive roster churn for Hoiberg. Transfers Trey McGowens (Pitt), Shamiel Stevenson (Nevada), Kobe Webster (W. Illinois), Teddy Allen (W. Virginia), Dalano Banton (W. Kentucky), Lat Mayen (TCU), and Derrick Walker (Tennessee) will all be eligible to suit up for the Huskers in 2020. It may take some time for this group to coalesce, but Nebraska could be a dangerous team to face come season’s end. The Cornhuskers host Illinois on Jan. 13 and visit State Farm Center on Feb. 24.
Ohio State Buckeyes (21-10; 11-9 Big Ten): The Buckeyes return a talented nucleus, including C.J. Walker, Duane Washington Jr., Kyle Young, and Illinois native E.J. Liddell. D.J. Carton departed for Marquette, but heralded transfer Seth Towns (Harvard) joins the roster, and guard Musa Jallow is back after missing last season due to ankle surgery. However, Utah State transfer Abel Porter was forced to medically retire because of a heart condition. Another interesting wrinkle to this rivalry is that Illinois’ Andre Curbelo and Ohio State’s Zed Key were teammates at Long Island Lutheran High School in New York. The Orange & Blue host the Buckeyes on Jan. 16 and conclude the regular season Mar. 6 in Columbus.
Michigan State Spartans (22-9; 14-6 Big Ten): It’s rare looking at preseason conference rankings and not seeing Tom Izzo’s team at the top. Yes, All-Big Ten players Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman have moved on to the NBA. But let’s not weep for the Spartans quite yet. Marquette transfer Joey Hauser helps fortify a roster already flush with talent — Rocket Watts, Aaron Henry, Malik Hall, and Marcus Bingham are all back, as is Joshua Langford, who missed most of the last two seasons to injury. Michigan State led the B1G last season in defensive rebounding (29.2/gm), opponent field goal percentage (38.3%) and opponent three-point percentage (28.3%). For reference, Illinois shot a combined 44-for-135 (32.6%) and 8-for-46 (17.4%) from deep in last season’s contests. Sparty will pose a tremendous challenge once again, and it won’t shock anyone to see them atop the B1G leaderboard by season’s end. The Illini’s lone meeting with the Spartans emanates from East Lansing Jan. 23.
Iowa Hawkeyes (20-11; 11-9 Big Ten): Not to sound like a broken record, but as a native Quad Citian, I am soooooooo glad this rivalry is rekindled. If last year’s showdowns proved anything, it’s that there is — as Lovie would say — juice between the Hawkeyes and Illini once again. Watching these two games last season was like watching a heavyweight fight. Like Illinois, Iowa has big expectations this season and is ranked in the preseason top 10. Like Illinois, Iowa is returning most of its talented core from a year ago. Luka Garza deservedly received the conference’s Player of the Year honor (and probably should’ve been National POTY if we’re being truthful) and will be a favorite to win the award again in 2020-21, though I think that Ayo guy will have something to say about it. Garza’s 740 points were a single-season record for the Hawkeyes. Joe Wieskamp has started all 66 games of his collegiate career and is a 40% long-range shooter. Wieskamp, Garza, Ayo & Kofi are probably four of the top 15 players in the B1G — how the league office decided that these two teams should only play once is beyond my comprehension. Nonetheless, the Illini & Hawkeyes face off Jan. 29 in Champaign.
Wisconsin Badgers (21-10; 14-6 Big Ten): The Badgers went from plotting Greg Gard’s exit strategy to celebrating a Big Ten title within the span of a month. Wisconsin won its final eight regular season games to share the conference championship with Maryland & Michigan State. The Badgers are ranked in the top 10 to start this season. While they don’t land the top-end recruits of other Big Ten blue-bloods, the Badgers are always a well-rounded, complete group that is extremely competitive. But there could be a sea change following this season. Wisconsin’s top five returning scorers, led by 6-foot-11 Nate Reuvers, are seniors, and the players behind them are mostly unproven. The Fighting Illini host the Badgers on Feb. 6, with a rematch in Madison three weeks later.
Michigan Wolverines (19-12; 10-10 Big Ten): Illinois swept both meetings last season, and will look for its third straight win over Michigan on Feb. 11 at Crisler Arena. The Wolverines started last season red hot but petered out a bit during league play. Juwan Howard begins year two with the top-rated recruiting class in the B1G, which includes his son Jace and four-star signees Hunter Dickinson, Zeb Jackson and Terrance Williams. But there is plenty of turnover from last season’s squad. Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske graduated. Colin Castleton and David DeJulius transferred. Thankfully for the Wolverines, leading scorer Isaiah Livers is back and healthy. The 6-foot-7 forward missed 10 games last season due to injury — Michigan lost six of them. The Wolverines are too talented to be in the Big Ten’s cellar, but it’s fair for Big Blue fans to temper their expectations until further notice.
Overall, this season’s Big Ten schedule shook out pretty well for the Illini. Getting Nebraska, Northwestern, Penn State and Minnesota — four of the expected bottom-feeders in the league — twice each is pretty favorable, though I do believe the conference did themselves a disservice by not scheduling a home-and-home between Iowa & Illinois. We’ve been waiting more than eight months for this...now it’s time to put in the work. Let’s go!