Illinois Fighting Illini Basketball: Breaking Down the Non-Conference Schedule
In 2011, the Fighting Illini went into the Big Ten season with only two losses: to UNLV and Missouri. Things only went downhill from there though, as the Illini struggled in league play and finished with a 6-12 conference record.
Even after a hot start to the season, Illinois didn't qualify for any postseason tournaments. Meyers Leonard's decision to leave early for the NBA was a good choice for him personally, but it leaves John Groce and crew with few options for 2012-13.
Illinois tends to fare better when expectations are low, although I still see them finishing in the bottom third of the Big Ten. This year's non-conference schedule will be a challenge, but isn't too daunting and should be a good way to ease into Big Ten play after the New Year.
November Home Games
vs. St. Francis (NY)—W
vs. Georgia Tech—W
After the Orange & Blue Scrimmage and two exhibition contests, the 2012-13 Fighting Illini open the season at home against Colgate on November 9. This game will serve as a tuneup for the Maui Invitational, which I expect Illinois to win in Coach John Groce's debut.
They should then beat St. Francis (NY) three days later and start 2-0.
After the Maui Invitational, Illinois will welcome Gardner-Webb at home and a win here should help the team regain any lost confidence.
They then host a young and inexperienced Yellow Jacket squad and should extend their Big Ten-ACC Challenge winning streak to four.
Just like in 2007, Illinois will play a game in Hawaii before the Maui Invitational actually begins.
Pictured above is former Illinois player Calvin Brock, who had a last-second basket over Hawaii last time the team played on the island. Expect Illini wins over the Rainbows and then, on the opening day of the tournament, over the USC Trojans.
From there, things will get tougher for Illinois. Although Texas is overrated in my eyes, I see the Longhorns giving John Groce his first loss as head coach of U of I.
In the third-place game Illinois may face an even tougher challenge, in this case Marquette, finishing 2-2 in Hawaii and fourth place in the Invitational.
December Home Games
vs. Western Carolina—W
vs. Norfolk State—W
vs. Eastern Kentucky—W
After the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, Illinois will play host to Western Carolina in what should be another victory. The team then travels to Washington to face Gonzaga, before coming back home to face Norfolk State and Eastern Kentucky.
Norfolk State shocked Missouri in last year's NCAA Tournament, but lost star player Kyle O'Quinn to graduation. Anything less than three wins against the opponents listed above would be a major cause of concern for Groce and the Illini Nation.
On December 8th, Illinois travels to Spokane to take on the Gonzaga Bulldogs.
Pictured here are Meyers Leonard and Robert Sacre during last year's matchup in Champaign, which the Illini won. In fact, Illinois defeated Gonzaga in Seattle in 2010.
Gonzaga's Elias Harris will be a tough player to match up with for Illinois because of his ability to beat you in a variety of ways. Kevin Pangos had a solid freshman season, while Sam Dower is ready to have a breakout year.
A road win here would be huge for Groce, but I don't see it happening.
Neutral Site Games
vs. Missouri in St. Louis—L
vs. Auburn in Chicago—W
The non-conference slate ends with a pair of neutral-site games exactly a week apart, on Dec. 22 and Dec. 29.
Despite an epic comeback led by Joseph Bertrand in the 2011 Busch Braggin' Rights game, Illinois fell short to Missouri for a third straight season.
This wasn't always the case though, as Illinois defeated the Tigers every year from 2000 through 2008.
While Illinois should eventually get back on the right track in this series, Missouri's Flip Pressey, Lawrence Bowers and bevy of transfers should be enough to hold off the Illini for at least one more year.
After the non-conferenc season ends, I see Illinois heading into Big Ten play with a respectable 10-4 record. That means it should take around seven Big Ten wins to at least be eligible to play in the NIT and 10 or 11 to advance to the NCAA Tournament.
As a lifelong Illinois fan, I no longer am optimistic heading into any season despite the hoopla around the program. Obviously the team is in a rebuilding stage at this point, but having seniors Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson around one more year should help the younger players develop.
Sam McLaurin should be a welcome addition to the team, possibly starting alongside Nnanna Egwu in the frontcourt. Tracy Abrams should once again handle the rock, while Joseph Bertrand could see minutes at numerous positions on the court.
Tyler Griffey is due for a big senior season, while Myke Henry showed signs of a natural scoring ability as a freshman. If everyone buys into Groce's system, this team could finish as high as seventh in the Big Ten and be a bubble team on Selection Sunday.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, this is the same team that collapsed last year under Bruce Weber. If that same level of play continues, they could finish only higher than Nebraska in the league. Realistically, I see them finishing 10th, only ahead of Nebraska and Penn State, and not participating in the postseason yet again.
Hopefully I am being too pessimistic here. At the very least, Groce should have a nice foundation laid by year's end and get a better idea of how to recruit throughout the state, Chicago in particular.
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