The college basketball season is nigh. And for those of us like me that have been tracking the Illini’s every move since March, it’s exciting as hell. Even watching a 70-point exhibition win versus an NAIA school has my blood pumping.
Brad Underwood enters year five in Champaign and has the deepest team of his tenure. Even with the departures of key contributors Adam Miller, Giorgi Bezhanishvili and Ayo Dosunmu, expectations remain high that Illinois will be playing deep into March.
With less than two weeks remaining until the regular season tips off, here’s a preview of the Fighting Illini’s eleven non-conference opponents.
Jackson State Tigers (2020-21 Record: 12-6; 11-0 SWAC)
The Illini begin the new campaign Nov. 9 at State Farm Center versus last year’s co-regular season SWAC champs. The Tigers missed out on the NCAA Tournament after losing to Texas Southern in their conference tourney.
Leading scorer Tristan Jarrett (21.1 points/gm, 35.8% 3-pt, 84.2% free throw) returns for JSU, as does 2019 SWAC Defensive Player of the Year Jayveous McKinnis. The 6-foot-7 forward averaged a double-double last season (12.5 PPG, 13.2 RPG, 2.1 BPG, 57.4% FG) and finished second in the nation in rebounding.
The Tigers play all of their first 12 games away from home, and starting the season against a top-11 team just seems inhumane. Jackson State will cash the check, but this has all the makings of a 1-versus-16 type of matchup.
Arkansas State Red Wolves (11-13; 7-8 Sun Belt)
The second of back-to-back home games to start the season, Illinois welcomes Arkansas State to Champaign on Nov. 12. The Red Wolves return their top eight scorers from last year’s roster and added Arkansas transfer Desi Sills.
Leading scorer Marquis Eaton averaged 14.2 points and 5.2 assists per game in 2020-21, and Belleville, Ill., native Christian Willis averaged 50.9% from three-point distance, fourth-best in the nation.
Like the aforementioned Jayveous McKinnis, Arkansas State forward Norchad Omier was one of the country’s elite rebounders a season ago. The first-ever Nicaraguan player to earn a Division I scholarship, Omier pulled down 12.3 rebounds per game for the Red Wolves, while also tallying 12.6 PPG, 1.4 BPG, and 1.2 SPG. The Sun Belt named him its Preseason Player of the Year.
Marquette Golden Eagles (13-14; 8-11 Big East)
The Fighting Illini head to Milwaukee for this Gavitt Games matchup on Nov. 15. Shaka Smart succeeds Steve Wojciechowski as Marquette’s head coach, and he inherits a program picked to finish ninth in an always-competitive Big East.
The Golden Eagles’ entire starting lineup from last season — Dawson Garcia, D.J. Carton, Kobe McEwen, Jamal Cain & Theo John — is gone, leaving redshirt freshman Justin Lewis as the team’s leading returning scorer...at 7.8 PPG. Smart and his staff combed the transfer portal, adding Kur Kuath (Oklahoma), Darryl Morsell (Maryland) & Olivier-Maxence Prosper (Clemson) to a depleted roster.
Marquette is attempting a rapid retool, and this game should be a great opportunity for the Illini to grab a power-conference road win.
Cincinnati Bearcats (12-11; 8-6 American Athletic)
The Illini and Bearcats square off in the Hall of Fame Classic Nov. 22 in Kansas City. Wes Miller comes to Cincinnati after 10 seasons as head coach at UNC-Greensboro, where he led the Spartans to five 20-win campaigns & four Southern Conference regular-season titles.
Miller’s new-look Bearcats brought in a host of transfers, especially in the frontcourt. 6-foot-11 Abdul Ado played in 131 games for Mississippi State, registering 800 points, 803 rebounds, and 249 blocked shots. Seven-footer Hayden Koval spent last season playing for Miller at UNCG, where he averaged 2.2 BPG and shot 64% from two-point range.
Kofi Cockburn, Omar Payne and the rest of the Illini bigs will be tested against Cincinnati’s rim protectors.
Arkansas Razorbacks (25-7; 13-4 SEC) or Kansas State Wildcats (9-20; 4-14 Big 12)
Illinois’ second Hall of Fame Classic opponent is yet to be determined, but both potential matchups are intriguing. Arkansas has been recruiting at a national championship level under Eric Musselman, and the Razorbacks have brought in four high-profile transfers this offseason — Chris Lykes (Miami), Jaxon Robinson (Texas A&M), Au’Diese Toney (Pittsburgh), Stanley Umude (South Dakota). Arkansas made its deepest NCAA Tournament run in 26 years, losing to eventual champion Baylor in the Elite 8.
The other possibility is a meeting with former Fighting Illini head coach Bruce Weber and Kansas State. Weber is 170-130 in nine seasons at K-State, but only 20-41 the past two years. Even though things didn’t exactly end well in Champaign, Weber will always be remembered as the coach of Illinois’ most successful team ever. The Illini may also have another opportunity to face former Illinois Mr. Basketball Mark Smith, who transferred from Missouri for his super-senior season.
UTRGV Vaqueros (9-10; 2-5 WAC)
The Fighting Illini return home for a Black Friday matchup with UT-Rio Grande Valley. The Vaqueros are picked to finish ninth in the Western Athletic Conference.
Matt Figger took over the program in March after former coach Lew Hill passed away from COVID-19 complications during the season. UTRGV graduated its leading scorer, Sean Rhea (15.2 PPG), and does not return a double-digit scorer from 2020-21. Grad transfer Xavier Johnson averaged 11.8 PPG last season at Chicago State.
The Vaqueros struggled offensively, averaging only 29.4% from beyond the arc and 63.7% from the charity stripe. This game is a clear mismatch — UTRGV is ranked 304th in KenPom — and looks to be one of the easiest contests on the schedule.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish (11-15; 4-11 ACC)
This season’s edition of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge features the Illini facing a familiar foe. Mike Brey’s Fighting Irish come to State Farm Center Nov. 29. This will be the third time Notre Dame and Illinois have played each other in this event since 2015, with the Irish winning each of the first two contests.
Notre Dame is hoping to bounce back from a disappointing campaign, and returns its top three scorers — seniors Prentiss Hubb (14.6 PPG), Nate Laszewski (13.3 PPG) & Dane Goodwin (11.8 PPG).
Despite the team’s overall struggles, the Irish finished last season 25th nationally in free throw percentage (77.3%) and 46th in 3-point shooting (36.8%). Notre Dame is a veteran team and won’t be daunted by this early-season road test.
Arizona Wildcats (17-9; 11-9 Pac-12)
‘Zona visits Champaign Dec. 11 to complete the home-and-home series that was postponed due to COVID-19 last season. The Illinois lost in Tucson, 90-69, in 2019. Sean Miller is gone, and longtime Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd has taken over as the Wildcats’ head man.
Arizona was incredibly active in the transfer portal, landing guards Justin Kier (Georgia) & Pelle Larsson (Utah), wing Kim Aiken Jr. (Eastern Washington), and center Oumar Ballo (Gonzaga). Ballo joins a Wildcat frontcourt already featuring 7-foot-1 Christian Koloko and 6-foot-11 Azuolas Tubelis. Illinois’ bigs ought to be challenged once again.
Arizona is looking to regain its status as a college hoops powerhouse after several down seasons, and Illini fans will relish every opportunity to knock the Wildcats down.
St. Francis (PA) Red Flash (6-16; 5-13 Northeast)
After netting 75 victories over the previous four seasons, the Red Flash stumbled in 2020-21. Rob Krimmel enters his 10th season as head coach of his alma mater.
Redshirt senior guard Ramiir Dixon-Conover led St. Francis in scoring (15.5 PPG), assists (4.4 APG), and steals (1.9 SPG) last season — he also played JUCO ball in my wife’s hometown of Burlington, Iowa, so there’s that.
The Red Flash are projected to finish eighth in the NEC, and enter the season ranked 244th in KenPom.
Missouri Tigers (16-10; 8-8 SEC)
Braggin’ Rights returns to its usual St. Louis locale after Mizzou hosted last year’s tilt. The Illini have lost three straight in the rivalry following a five-game win streak.
Lots of new faces join the mix for the Tigers in 2021. The Smiths — Dru, Mitchell & Mark — have departed Columbia, as have Parker Braun, Xavier Pinson and former Illini commit Jeremiah Tilmon. Another John Groce Illinois recruit, guard Javon Pickett, should see an uptick in usage after serving primarily as a sixth man last year. 6-foot-8 forward Kobe Brown is Mizzou’s lone returning starter, and Cuonzo Martin reeled in several key transfers to replace that production — forward Ronnie DeGray III (UMass), guard DaJuan Gordon (Kansas State), guard Jarron Coleman (Ball State), and combo guard Amari Davis, who averaged 17.1 PPG for Green Bay last season.
Regardless of record, Braggin’ Rights is always circled on the calendar. Illinois and Missouri have a storied history and is a real rivalry, one we don’t see often nowadays with non-conference opponents. These two fanbases just plain don’t like each other.
Please, please, beat Miznoz.
Florida A&M Rattlers (8-12; 7-5 MEAC)
FAMU visits State Farm Center Dec. 29 for the dreaded holiday break non-conference home game.
Top scorer MJ Randolph (15.9 PPG) returns for his senior season. The 6-foot-4 guard also led FAMU in assists (3.9 APG) and was second on the team in rebounds per game (6.6). Champaign native Kamron Reaves averaged 7.6 PPG for the Rattlers. Defensively, FAMU only allowed 68.5 PPG last year and was stingy on the perimeter, holding opponents to 28.5% three-point shooting (120-of-421). They’ll need that kind of spirited defensive effort to try to combat Illinois’ fast-paced offense.
This game typically has the lowest energy level of any game on the schedule, but these Illini are built different and shouldn’t have to worry about a Florida Atlantic-type slip-up.
All in all, this is a perfectly fine non-conference slate. Illinois will have a fair number of tests but plenty of opportunities for comfortable wins. Most power-conference programs face similar opposition in their non-league schedule. The Fighting Illini will be favored to win most — if not all — of these contests and ought to be suitably prepared for March Madness.