Illinois Fighting Illini basketball expectations have been lifted under second year head coach John Groce after an NCAA Tournament win in 2013 and top-notch recruiting class for 2014. However, there's still a season to play before those recruits arrive on campus, and it won't be an easy one.
With only 10 scholarship players eligible to play, five of whom are freshmen, the 2013-14 season could see a little bit of everything. There is certainly talent on the roster, but with only three returning players there are question marks all over the place.
We'll first get a chance to see the new look Illini in a regular season game on November 8th, just over a month from now. Here is a look at the Illini's nonconference schedule, an important time for team togetherness before the nightly grind of Big Ten play begins.
In just 10 days, Illinois will host their Orange & Blue Scrimmage, which will be the first chance to see the Illini's highly touted recruiting class. One week later, the Illini play their first exhibition game, against McKendree. Ten days after that, they host Northwood in an exhibition contest.
The highly anticipated regular season will tip off on November 8th when Alabama State comes to town. In the month of November alone, the Illini will also host Jacksonville State, Valparaiso, Bradley, Chicago State and IPFW.
The final nonconference game at the State Farm Center is on December 10th, against the Ivy League's Dartmouth. The Illini won't play host again until New Year's Eve when the Indiana Hoosiers come to Champaign and try to avenge last season's buzzer-beating defeat.
Illinois should be able to handle all seven of the teams that travel to the building formerly known as Assembly Hall as part of their pre-conference season. It should also give the freshmen a chance to get a feel for the college game before the competition stiffens after the New Year.
On November 26th, the Fighting Illini will battle UNLV out in Las Vegas. Local Illini fans will have to stay up late to watch as the game tips off at 9:45 p.m. CST. The Illini were defeated by the Runnin' Rebels in December 2011 at the United Center.
The Rebels recently picked up a top recruit in Goodluck Okonoboh, though he won't dress until 2014. Dave Rice's team does have an eligible Khem Birch though. Birch transferred to UNLV from Pittsburgh and should give the thin Illini frontcourt some trouble.
Several weeks later, the Illini travel to Portland to face the Oregon Ducks in a "neutral site" game. The game starts at 8 p.m. CST on December 14th. Dana Altman and the Ducks made the Sweet 16 in 2013 and ironically will have former UNLV star Mike Moser suiting up for them.
Oregon should be ranked in the top 25 preseason and should finish near the top of the Pac-12 standings. Fortunately, the game will be played in Portland, meaning the Illini won't have to step foot on Oregon's hideous court.
On December 3rd, Illini will battle the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets for the second straight season in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. Last season, the Illini needed a late run, fueled by Joseph Bertrand, to knock off the visiting Ramblin' Wreck.
Georgia Tech has been a bottom feeder of the ACC recently and should be again in 2013-14. While traveling on the road against any power conference school is a tough task, I expect the Illini to extend their Big Ten-ACC Challenge winning streak to five.
Five days later, the Illini play in Atlanta again, this time against the Auburn Tigers. Last December the Illini knocked off Auburn behind a career game from Tracy Abrams at the United Center. This year's "neutral site" return game should be a more pro-Tiger crowd.
As is the case with Georgia Tech, Auburn is expected to finish near the bottom of the SEC, a worse basketball conference than both the ACC and Big Ten. Illinois had trouble fending off the Tigers a year ago, but I still see Illinois leaving Atlanta twice in one week with a pair of wins.
The annual battle between Illinois and Missouri in St. Louis has to be one of the top neutral site rivalries in college basketball. After nine straight wins in the series from 2000 to 2008, the Illini are currently on a four-game losing streak with the Tigers. This year's game occurs on December 21st.
Mizzou is loaded with transfer talent, with Tony Criswell, Jordan Clarkson, Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross. Illinois is no stranger to transfers on their roster, though Ahmad Starks, Aaron Cosby and Darius Paul will all have to sit this year's Braggin' Rights matchup.
One week later, the Illini close nonconference action at the United Center against a local product in the UIC Flames. Just three seasons ago this same Flames team shocked the Illini in an upset at the UC. Don't expect this year's Illini squad to let UIC hang around again.
No knock against UIC, but I would much rather see a power conference or top mid-major opponent play in the annual United Center game, one where plenty of Chicagoland alums attend. Illinois could still play UIC in a road contest, one that would still figure to be predominantly orange and blue clad.
vs. Alabama State: W
vs. Jacksonville State: W
vs. Valparaiso: W
vs. Bradley: W
vs. Chicago State: W
@ UNLV: L
vs. IPFW: W
@ Georgia Tech: W
vs. Auburn: W
vs. Dartmouth: W
vs. Oregon: L
vs. Missouri: L
vs. UIC: W
For the nonconference slate I am predicting a 10-3 mark for the Fighting Illini. Illinois will have opportunities to knock off good teams—though I'm not expecting to beat UNLV, Oregon or Missouri—especially given the fact that they are road or neutral site games.
Illinois needs to take care of business against inferior competition and not allow for any slip-ups that could be a major detriment to their NCAA chances. Should Illinois go 10-3 with this schedule, a 9-9 or even another 8-10 Big Ten conference record could be enough to get back to the Big Dance.