Missouri, Northwestern, Purdue. A combined 1-3 record in the 2022-23 season for Illinois. Three of the five matchups this year are played within the next four games.
Sure, there are arguably bigger rivals than Purdue for Illinois, like Iowa, maybe Michigan or IU, but any matchup between two original Big Ten members is going to have some hard feelings.
Each one of these games will reveal something different about how this season should play out, and each one will be full of bitterness.
8 p.m. Friday
We all want this one and we want this one bad. If you go back and look at how the last five years went for each of these teams, it would seem impossible that Missouri would be 4-1, but that’s college basketball for you, especially in rivalry games.
Illinois’ finishing tournament seeds in those years? Didn’t make it, no tournament, 1, 4, and 9.
Missouri? Didn't make it, no tournament, 9, didn’t make it, and 7.
Numerous years, including this one, have felt like a “take care of business” game, but most years in recent memory that is not how it has panned out for the Illini.
Winning this game in a convincing way will simply make this year feel different than years past. Missouri is always a tough out, playing a big rival on a neutral site for a trophy, even if the Tigers are ranked No. 85 in KenPom.
Finally getting over the Mizzou hump this season will provide more than enough confidence going into these next two rivals.
8 p.m. Jan. 2
Northwestern is just about as confusing as a team gets. Beating top-ranked Purdue and handing the Boilers their only loss of the young season was a fantastic win. But also losing to THE Chicago State at home is about as bad as it gets less than two weeks after the marquee win.
The way it seems, is that if Boo Buie and Co. are on, they will win, and if not, they won’t.
That being said, it’s games like this where I look forward and think “Man, I wish Sencire didn’t redshirt this year.” The amazing win last year in the second NW game was fueled by Harris and his stellar defense, shutting down Boo and providing the spark Illinois needed.
It would be nice to see him do the same this year, especially in a year where it seems Northwestern’s success falls almost solely in the hands of the shooting percentage of the team’s stars.
It will be up to most likely Ty or TSJ to attempt to provide that same kind of defensive presence in this year, and take a step up from last year after the first half defense in a game where Buie had 35 points.
I think this game should be a win, even though it is a very dangerous game, and if the Illini take care of business against the Wildcats and the Tigers, they will already have more wins against these three teams than they had in the entirety of next year.
7:30 p.m. Jan. 5
Purdue is not in the top three of Illinois’ basketball rivals but they aren't far down the list. Border states, both teams founding members of the Big Ten, a matchup history close enough to .500, everything lines up for these two teams to have some bad blood.
Purdue is also very, very good at basketball, and maybe Illinois can take a page out of Northwestern’s book for this one.
Did Northwestern stop or even slow down the reining NPOY Zach Edey? Nope. But what they did do was control the three-point game. Edey will obviously always get his, but it’s the play of those around him that determine how good that team will go.
This game will either be marked off as a “Yeah, that was supposed to happen, just move on,” or a season-defining win that could put this team near the top of the AP poll. Illinois definitely has the talent and coaching ability to compete with or maybe even beat Purdue, and if the team can go into this one with wins over the two biggest rivals of the program, momentum will be through the roof.
Rivalries matter, always, but having three games this close to each other could create a certain aura to the team that could last all season. Here’s to hoping it’s a good one.