Brad Underwood has never shied away from the competition. This statement will become pretty clear to you once the college basketball season begins because the Illinois non-conference slate is absolutely LOADED.
Let’s dive right in.
The non-conference gauntlet begins on Oct. 20 as the mighty Ottawa Braves come to town for what should be an instant classic exhibition game. This is where we’ll see what the Illini are made of.
Was all the preseason hype warranted? Is Brad Underwood a fraud that will never make it past the second round? Will the Bears ever win a game? Tune into this game and all of your questions will be answered.
Bill Self and Kansas arrive in Champaign the following Sunday to play in the Maui Strong Relief Matchup. All proceeds raised from this game will be donated to the Hawaii Community Foundation Maui Strong Fund, providing financial resources to the relief efforts from the devastating Maui wildfires.
If Illinois wins this game, I will be counting it as an official regular season win. If they lose this game, I will not be counting it as an official regular season loss. This way if the Illini win, former Michigan center Hunter Dickinson will move to 0-5 against the Illini in his career. And if they lose, the game doesn't matter, except for the fact that it’s for a great cause!
Hunter Dickinson has still never beat Illinois in his 3 years of college basketball.— CBB Content (@CBBcontent) March 3, 2023
His record? 0-4. pic.twitter.com/bwNIBLs1Ms
On a more serious note, the Illini really kick off their season with a home matchup against Eastern Illinois, just like they did last year. Big Ten champion Jermaine Hamlin makes his return to Champaign in what should be a fun game for Illini fans.
Oakland comes to the State Farm Center a couple days later. Illinois should move to 2-0 pretty easily here. Not much needs to be said about these two tune-up games. The next game on the schedule, however...
Marquette is a national title contender this year. One of my favorite players to watch and one of the best players in the country, Tyler Kolek, leads the way for the Golden Eagles. Marquette also returns nearly all of its contributors from last year’s Big East title team. I’ve got to hand it to glorified cheerleader Shaka Smart. He always seems to dominate the regular season.
This game will not be easy, but I’m hoping to give Marquette a taste of its own medicine for what they did to us in 2021 when Kofi Cockburn was suspended for no reason. Shoutout the NCAA!
WHAT A FINISH— Action Network Colleges (@ActionColleges) November 16, 2021
Marquette (+275) upsets Illinois at the end of the game!
After the Marquette showdown, Illinois closes November out with three more home games against Valpo, Southern, and Western Illinois.
If Illinois is somehow worse than 5-1 as December rolls around, there will be people calling for Brad Underwood’s job. If Illinois is 6-0 as December rolls around, the fanbase will believe the Illini are national title contenders. I can't wait!
The Illini start off December with a conference game on Dec. 2 at Rutgers. Recent history tells us that there's about a 5% chance Illinois wins that game, because the RAC is where B1G teams go to die, even if Rutgers is terrible.
For some reason, Illinois only plays one B1G game in December this year instead of the usual two. Surely there will be no social media outrage about conference scheduling in mid-March when seven Big Ten teams lose in the first weekend!
The non-con slate gets going again three days later. The Illini stay on the east coast to play against FAU in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden.
FAU, like Marquette, returns most of its key pieces from last season. Obviously this will be another difficult matchup, assuming FAU’s Final Four run last year wasn't a fluke. (It was a fluke; I’m still mad my Final Four pick Memphis lost to FAU in the first round by 1.)
Side note: How awesome is it that Illinois has played in the Jimmy V Classic three of the last four years?
Tennessee is the next huge matchup for the Illini, coming just four days after the FAU game. Illinois unfortunately has to travel to Knoxville this year, but will host the Volunteers for the second matchup of the series in 2024.
My preseason take is that if Illinois takes 1 of 3 from Marquette, FAU, and Tennessee, we should all be happy. ESPN has all three of these teams in its preseason top TEN. Of course, once the season gets going we’ll all expect to go undefeated and Illini Twitter will be in shambles when Illinois inevitably loses one of these games.
Illinois and Colgate face off in mid-December at the SFC. Colgate has had some good seasons as of late. They’ve made the last four NCAA tournaments and almost upset Wisconsin in 2022.
Colgate is known for splashing threes at an insane rate, which could cause problems for a team that couldn't hit a three to save their lives last year. That being said, Illinois should still win this game. Moving on...
To the border war for Braggin’ Rights! If the Illini go down by 30 at any point during this game, Champaign might go up in flames, and it won't be because of a lawnmower at Memorial Stadium.
Missouri has some good transfers in Connor Vanover, Tamar Bates, and Caleb Grill, but Brad Underwood and the Illini still have zero excuses for another embarrassing loss like they've suffered in recent years.
To finish out this exciting non-conference schedule, Illinois will host the Knights of Fairleigh Dickinson University.
FDU had a decent regular season last year playing in the Northeast Conference. It’s not easy being the shortest team in the country. Last year’s FDU squad only snuck into the NCAA Tournament because of a silly rule preventing a former D-2 school from qualifying.
FDU was ranked #312 in Kenpom heading into the tournament. They were viewed as the worst team in the field of 68 and had to play in the First Four as a result.
I don't remember if they won that game but I'm sure if they did, they likely lost by 60 in the first round to a dominant one seed.
There’s no chance Illinois loses this game. A respected, talented, well-coached Big Ten team with an All-American and talented young guards probably isn't even capable of losing to an NEC team that bad.
A historic program being upset by Fairleigh Dickinson would be quite the story, though. I can't even imagine the reaction from the college basketball world if something like that were to happen.
If I had to watch Illinois lose one game this season, it would be this one. I am forever thankful to FDU for what they did to Purdue back in March, and I wouldn't mind losing this game as a showing of appreciation for their efforts a season ago.
"The more I watch Purdue, the more I think we can beat them."— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 18, 2023
The FDU coach called their upset win yesterday pic.twitter.com/Ist2i94wMT
I’d much rather have a tough non-conference schedule than a weak one. Even if we lose every tough game, it won't matter too much for our March resumé. Quad 1 opportunities never hurt.
Let’s have ourselves a season.