On Thursday, August 21, the Big Ten Conference released the 2014-15 conference schedule for what is now a 14-team league. The additions of Maryland and Rutgers to the already improperly named conference adds an East Coast wrinkle to the predominantly Midwest mix of universities.
With an 18-game conference season, each team plays only five other teams in the league twice. For Illinois, those teams are Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern, Nebraska and Purdue.
After Wisconsin, the Big Ten appears to be wide open. Regardless of my allegiance to the Fighting Illini, I see them finishing in the top four of the league standings and receiving the now all-important double-bye in the Big Ten tournament this March in Chicago.
|12/30/14||at Michigan||Ann Arbor, Michigan||TBA|
|01/03/15||at Ohio State||Columbus, Ohio||TBA|
|01/07/15||vs. Maryland||State Farm Center||TBA|
|01/11/15||at Nebraska||Lincoln, Nebraska||TBA|
|01/14/15||at Northwestern||Evanston, Illinois||TBA|
|01/18/15||vs. Indiana||State Farm Center||TBA|
|01/21/15||vs. Purdue||State Farm Center||TBA|
|01/24/15||at Minnesota||Minneapolis, Minn.||TBA|
|01/31/15||vs. Penn State||State Farm Center||TBA|
|02/03/15||vs. Rutgers||State Farm Center||TBA|
|02/07/15||at Michigan State||East Lansing, Michigan||TBA|
|02/12/15||vs. Michigan||State Farm Center||TBA|
|02/15/15||at Wisconsin||Madison, Wisconsin||TBA|
|02/22/15||vs. Michigan State||State Farm Center||TBA|
|02/25/15||at Iowa||Iowa City, Iowa||TBA|
|02/28/15||vs. Northwestern||State Farm Center||TBA|
|03/04/15||vs. Nebraska||State Farm Center||TBA|
|03/07/15||at Purdue||West Lafayette, Indiana||TBA|
Schedule courtesy of FightingIllini.com.
While both Michigan and Ohio State should be worse than they were a season ago, I'll pick against the Illini on the road over winter break, giving them an 0-2 record. Michigan's Caris Levert is poised for a huge junior season with the losses of Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III in Ann Arbor, while Shannon Scott will continue to pressure opposing guards in Columbus as Aaron Craft did the previous four seasons.
After beating the newbie Maryland Terrapins at home, Illinois will split road matchups with Nebraska and Northwestern. The Illini dropped their visits to Lincoln and Evanston a year ago, but a pro-Illini crowd should help them steal one against "Chicago's Big Ten Team." The Terps have a talented player in Dez Wells, as well as former Michigan Wolverine Evan Smotrycz, on their roster. The Cornhuskers lost only once at home a year ago in their brand new stadium, while Northwestern's Welsh-Ryan Arena is a glorified high school stadium.
After starting 2-3 in the B1G, Illinois then reaches the most favorable part of its conference slate with four of five home games. After taking care of both teams from the state of Indiana—the Hoosiers and Boilermakers— Illinois will knock off a similarly skilled Minnesota Golden Gophers team. The orange and blue have played extremely well in Minneapolis in recent history, and I see that trend continuing in 2015. IU will have trouble replacing Noah Vonleh's production, while Purdue's loss of the Johnson brothers (Ronnie and Terone) takes away plenty of production (both good and bad).
John Groce's squad returns to the State Farm Center to beat bottom feeders Penn State and Rutgers before ending its five-game winning streak with a trip to East Lansing. This leaves Illinois with a 7-4 conference record. D.J. Newbill and Kendrick Nunn were involved in a spat last January in Champaign. The Scarlet Knights are pegged as the last-place team in their inaugural Big Ten season.
The Illini get back on track with payback wins at home over both Michigan and Michigan State, sandwiched between their annual obligatory beatdown in Madison by a Badgers squad that I see returning to the Final Four. Wisconsin welcomes back seven of its eight rotation players from a year ago, losing only Ben Brust from last year's Final Four squad.
After beating Iowa on another late shot in Iowa City, Illinois then drops its only home conference game of the season. Surprisingly, Northwestern is the only team to leave Champaign victorious. Illinois hasn't swept Northwestern since the 2006-07 season. Chris Collins will have his bunch hungry to beat its in-state rival, leaving the Illini with a sour taste in their mouths before March basketball tips off. The Wildcats welcome back JerShon Cobb, Alex Olah and Tre Demps while losing only Drew Crawford from last season's overachieving group.
Illinois then knocks off Nebraska on Senior Day, honoring Tracy Abrams, Nnanna Egwu, Rayvonte Rice and Ahmad Starks, before capping a 12-6 Big Ten season with a victory at Purdue. This record leaves the Illini in third place behind only Wisconsin and Nebraska. The Illini were able to get under first-team All-Big Ten selection Terran Petteway's skin a season ago, knocking off the then-bubble squad Huskers.
In the Big Ten tournament, Illinois defeats Minnesota on Friday before beating the Cornhuskers in the semifinals, backed behind a heavily orange-clad crowd. The Illini then fall to Bo Ryan's Badgers in the championship game but have done enough to cement themselves as a fifth seed in the NCAA tournament. The successful season lands John Groce the Big Ten Coach of the Year award, while Rayvonte Rice, Kendrick Nunn, Nnanna Egwu and Leron Black all receive honors within the league.