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Here we go: It’s time for Illinois to hit its stride

The next few games will tell us everything.

The Champaign Room // Jack Jungmann

Illinois’ KenPom strength of schedule is currently ranked No. 353 out of 362 teams.

Marquette coming to Champaign was awesome. It’s a shame the Illini didn't win that one. The rest of the games this season have been snooze fests where Illinois has mostly dominated the cupcake teams they have played. That’s about to change.

On Saturday, Illinois begins its conference slate with a trip to Piscataway to take on Rutgers. Three days later, they'll be in Madison Square Garden facing off against a Final Four team from last year in FAU. Four days after that, they travel to Knoxville to play No. 10 Tennessee. Then, Brad Underwood will attempt to exorcise his demons and beat Missouri just before Christmas.

We’re in for a wild ride. Win or lose, we’ll learn a lot about the team from this three-week stretch. Will Coleman Hawkins return to form and look like an NBA player? Will the turnover issue be corrected? Can the Illini shoot above 30% from beyond the arc consistently?

It’s still early in the season. Dropping a couple of these games won't be the end of the world. However, if Illinois manages to win three of these games, they’ll set themselves up nicely for March.

We saw a very similar scenario last year. Illinois somehow pulled off upsets against UCLA and Texas and it propelled them to an at-large bid in the tournament, even though they were very mediocre the remainder of the year. Two neutral site Quad 1 wins against teams that went on to be two seeds in the tourney were the only reason Illinois made the NCAA Tournament last season.

The Illini already missed out on a massive opportunity to beat Marquette, but luckily tough scheduling gives them a couple more chances before the conference season really gets going.

But as we know, this stretch of tough games actually begins with an intriguing conference game. Rutgers doesn't have the star power it’s had in the past couple years, but the Knights are still a tough, defensive-minded Steve Pikiell team.

Mulcahy, McConnell, and Spencer are all gone, but believe me, Rutgers, especially at the RAC, will be sure to put up a fight. Grinding out a win on the road to begin conference play would be a huge achievement for Brad & Co.

Last year, Illinois wasn't able to do so and lost its first three games in conference play. They bounced back by winning six of their next seven, but it was still a difficult hole to climb out of.

Good teams defend their home court. Great teams win on the road (and on neutral courts). The Illini have four big chances to prove they're a great team in these next three weeks. Two on the road and two at neutral sites.

Florida Atlantic went to the Final Four last season and returned nearly all of its contributors this season. They’ve slipped up once already though, losing to Bryant at home. They're talented and have proved they’re legit, but I think Illinois’ big, physical roster will match up well with the Owls.

I think going into Tennessee and winning will be incredibly difficult, but a potential Dalton Knecht injury could be detrimental to the Volunteers’ roster. I’d say this is the least likely victory of the four games for the Illini, but at the end of the day, it’s college basketball. Nothing is impossible.

Finally, Illinois will look to win Braggin’ Rights after an embarrassing loss in the rivalry game last year. Illinois is the better team. They usually seem to be. A win in this game wouldn't help the March resume as much as some other wins would, but man, Illinois needs to win this game.

After losing nearly every “rivalry” game in 2022-23 (Missouri, Indiana x2, Northwestern, Iowa), it sure would feel good to earn a victory here.

Illinois would still have work to do in the actual Big Ten schedule of course, but getting 3 or 4 wins in the next few weeks would solidify Illinois as a top team in the conference without a doubt. The conference simply hasn't been impressive at all outside of Purdue to begin the year.

I haven't been particularly impressed with Illinois to begin the year either though. That is, except for Luke Goode.

Many of the same issues from last year’s team are still present, and I find it hard to believe they'll be magically fixed as the season progresses. That being said, the talent on the team is outstanding. They should win 20 games again, compete in the Big Ten, and make the Big Dance.

Let’s get hot starting on Saturday. Please. I need to get the bitter taste of the end of the football season out of my mouth.