Illinois Basketball: Previewing Fighting Illini's 2015 Double-Play Matchups

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Illinois Basketball: Previewing Fighting Illini's 2015 Double-Play Matchups
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With the additions of Maryland and Rutgers into the Big Ten Conference, uneven scheduling just became even more predominant. In football, the B1G will be divided into two divisions of seven. Each team in its respective division (East and West) will match up with every opponent in its division while also playing crossover games that change on a rotational basis. 

During an 18-game conference slate for basketball, each squad now plays eight opponents only once while matching up with the remaining five opponents twice. So, depending on which team you are stuck playing twice, it could be the difference between an NCAA at-large bid or a trip to the NIT—or even more drastically, a Big Ten title.

In 2014-15, Illinois plays Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, Northwestern and Purdue twice. Let's take a look at each series:

 

Michigan Wolverines

Last season, Michigan ruined senior day for Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey by trouncing the Illini with a barrage of three-pointers, led by Nik Stauskas. The Illini got a second chance at redemption in the Big Ten tournament's second round, but after a late Jordan Morgan basket, Tracy Abrams' last-second floater fell short, thus ending Illinois' NCAA tournament hopes.

The Wolverines return backcourt mates Derrick Walton and Caris LeVert, while sharpshooter Zak Irvin should enter the starting five at the second wing position.

The Wolverines will be undersized, with the losses of Morgan (graduation), Mitch McGary (NBA prospect) and Jon Horford (transfer). Nonetheless, the Wolverines could finish as high as second in the league next year, with Wisconsin is the runaway favorite. 

Prediction: Split (1-1)

 

Michigan State Spartans

The Illini welcomed Tom Izzo's bunch to State Farm Center in January in a poorly attended game due to snowy weather conditions coupled with winter break for the Fighting Illini students. MSU won that ballgame, but the Illini shocked MSU weeks later once the Spartans had finally gotten healthy. Illinois' defense caused fits for Sparty, and the Orange and Blue left East Lansing victorious.

Michigan State loses Adreian Payne, Gary Harris and Keith Appling, but the squad returns Branden Dawson and Denzel Valentine from last year's starting lineup. Travis Trice may assume the role of starting point guard as a senior, while Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling anchor the paint.

Michigan State could very well be in for a down year and finish near the middle of the pack, though it'd be silly to bet against Izzo.

Prediction: Split (1-1)

 

Nebraska Cornhuskers

Heather Coit/Associated Press

Nebraska coach Tim Miles shocked the league last season as the Cornhuskers were pegged to finish last in the conference only to end the year in fourth place with a bye on the opening day of the Big Ten tournament. Sophomores Terran Petteway, Shavon Shields and Walter Pitchford formed a nice trio in Lincoln, where the Huskers lost only once at home in their brand-new stadium.

Illinois fell victim to Nebraska in their first season meeting but returned the favor during the Cornhuskers' return trip to Champaign, shutting down Petteway. Miles' bunch also returns Tai Webster, David Rivers, Leslee Smith and Benny Parker from last year's rotation. Expect to see Nebraska finish anywhere from second to fourth if it reach its potential, though its league slate is a daunting one.

Prediction: Split (1-1)

 

Northwestern Wildcats

The Fighting Illini and Wildcats, who are in-state rivals, only met once last season. Northwestern emerged victorious in that lone meeting, scraping by Illinois in a low-scoring bloodbath where Rayvonte Rice played injured and Northwestern's Sanjay Lumpkin lost a tooth diving for a loose ball.

Head coach Chris Collins has NU moving in the right direction and returns key players in JerShon Cobb, Tre Demps and Alex Olah.

Despite returning those above-mentioned players and adding an underrated recruiting class, it's no secret that the Wildcats will miss Drew Crawford, who was a redshirt senior last season and finished his career as NU's second all-time leading scorer, only behind his former teammate John Shurna.

Northwestern will pull some upsets, but it is still a year or two away from making serious noise.

Prediction: Sweep (2-0)

 

Purdue Boilermakers

As was the case with Northwestern, Illinois and Purdue met only once in 2014-15, also resulting in an Illini defeat. The Boilermakers won an ugly early-season battle in Champaign, but that couldn't salvage a season that saw them finish last in the Big Ten standings.

The Johnson brothers are gone from West Lafayette, as Terone graduated and Ronnie decided to transfer to Houston.

A.J. Hammons has yet to reach his potential, though he'll be surrounded by up-and-coming sophomores Basil Smotherman, Kendall Stephens and Bryson Scott. Still, Purdue will be picked to finish at or near the bottom of conference standings after last year's collapse. If Matt Painter isn't on the hot seat yet for his alma mater, it may not be long before he is. Painter will need to light a fire under his center, Hammons.

Rick Danzl/Associated Press

Prediction: Sweep (2-0)

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