The Illinois Fighting Illini tip off their 116th season of college basketball this Tuesday. The disappointment of last season gets washed away, and the No. 11 Illini wipe the slate clean for 2021-22. Last week I briefly broke down all of Illinois’ non-conference opponents. This week I wanted to pay special attention to a handful of upcoming games.
There’s no real criteria for this list (with a few exceptions I’ll get to in a second), no precepts I’ve decided to stick by. These are merely games I’m eager to watch because of specific matchups, unique stories, or historical significance.
DISCLAIMER #1: Since Braggin’ Rights is an annual event, and we all want to see the Illini vaporize Mizzou, we will already be dedicating enough time to that game on this fine website. We’re hyped for that game every year, so I’ve elected to devote my energy to other teams.
DISCLAIMER #2: I also did not include Arkansas (or Kansas State) on this list because, well, we don’t know if Illinois will actually play them. Either matchup would be fun and interesting for its own reasons, but since that opponent is TBD, I’ve chosen to not mention them.
That said...away we go.
I was already intrigued by this matchup before Kofi Cockburn’s three-game suspension was announced, but now this will be the first game with the Illini figuratively at full strength.
Illinois will likely be undefeated heading into Kansas City for the Hall of Fame Classic. Its first opponent, the Cincinnati Bearcats, is coming off a tumultuous and controversial offseason.
38-year-old Wes Miller takes over for former head coach John Brannen, who was dismissed by Cincinnati following allegations of misconduct and NCAA violations. Miller spent a decade at UNC-Greensboro and helped build them into a very competitive mid-major program.
Cincinnati saw six players enter the transfer portal within days of its season ending, so Miller will have work to do to reshape the Bearcats’ roster, but he’s off to a quick start, bringing in five transfers, including three of his former UNCG recruits — guard A.J. McGinnis, forward Jarrett Hensley and center Hayden Koval.
The Bearcats are predicted to finish sixth in the American, but they have plenty of size to go mano y mano with the Illini — Koval is 7-foot-1 and Mississippi State transfer Abdul Ado is 6-foot-11, and each are efficient low post scorers and proficient shot blockers. I’m interested to watch how Brad Underwood deploys Kofi, Coleman Hawkins and Omar Payne in this game.
The ACC/Big Ten Challenge is always one of the most-anticipated events on the college basketball calendar — teams from arguably the two best conferences squaring off. This particular pairing is a bit odd, but I believe timing is to blame. When this matchup was revealed, Adam Miller had transferred while Ayo, Giorgi and Kofi had each declared for the NBA Draft. Certainly a Fighting Illini roster without two First-Team All-Big Ten players (Dosunmu, Cockburn) would be a far less formidable lineup. Rather than being a consensus top three Big Ten team, Illinois would likely be pegged more towards the middle of the league.
So, rather than potentially being pitted against a Duke, UNC, Virginia or Florida State, the Fighting Illini drew Notre Dame, a team that’s predicted to finish eighth in the ACC.
This Fighting Irish squad intrigues me because of how unusual they are. Mike Brey is bringing back six seniors, including All-ACC Second-Team selection Prentiss Hubb. And with so many teams reloading their roster by way of the transfer portal, Notre Dame added only one, former Yale forward Paul Atkinson.
The Illini had lost three straight in the Challenge before pasting Duke last season. I always look forward to this event — regardless of the opponent — but even moreso this year, with the Orange & Blue being a clear favorite. Don’t sleep on the Irish, though.
Even though Illinois and Arizona aren’t rivals in the “traditional” sense, the history between these two programs runs deep. The Wildcats were on the receiving end of the most famous comeback in Illini history during the 2005 Elite Eight, but the two sides faced each other seven times from 2000-07 — including three matchups in the 2000-01 season alone, in which Arizona won two.
The Illini & Wildcats renewed their rivalry in 2019 in Tucson, a 90-69 ‘Zona victory. But for the first time since January 1987, the Fighting Illini will host this game in Champaign — no neutral site, no multi-team event, a true home game.
Illinois has dropped three straight in the series — other than Mizzou, this is the game fans REEEEEEALLY want to win.
Arkansas State Red Wolves
This one may seem like a head-scratcher, but indulge me for a moment. I’m not suggesting that Arkansas State can upset Illinois, or that they’re even an NCAA Tournament team. But the Red Wolves play a similar style of up-tempo basketball and feature one the best players in the country you’ve probably never seen.
6-foot-7 forward Norchad Omier was the fourth-best rebounder in Division I last season, averaging 12.3 boards per game. The preseason Sun Belt Player of the Year, Omier is also the first Nicaraguan-born player in Division I. He spent the summer playing for his home nation in the FIBA World Cup Qualifiers.
Omier’s journey to Arkansas State reminds me a lot of Giorgi Bezhanishvili’s to Illinois — a lightly-recruited foreign-born player making an early impact. It’s a LONG way from Bluefields, Nicaragua to Jonesboro, Arkansas — geographically and culturally. Kudos to head coach Mike Balado and his staff for helping bring Omier to A-State.
Kofi will also miss this game due to his season-opening suspension.
Which non-conference game are you most looking forward to?
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