The Illinois Fighting Illini are coming off of a less than stellar campaign in Urbana-Champaign. In the 2013-14 season, John Groce's club went 20-15 and finished at No. 49 in Ken Pomeroy's rankings, culminating with a second round exit in the NIT to the Clemson Tigers.
The nonconference schedule that Illinois faced last year was not one of the best, to say the least. Based on pythagorean expectancy, a measurement that was crafted by Bill James, Illinois' nonconference strength of schedule was 241st in the country at .4106. The results that the Fighting Illini had during this stretch would seem to indicate that they were rarely challenged, as they finished at 11-2 before December 31.
This year's nonconference schedule is not much different from last year's but there are some presentable challenges ahead. While the Oregon Ducks were the only team that the Illini faced in the nonconference portion of their season to make the NCAA Tournament, Illinois will be playing four teams that made the 2014 NCAA Tournament this coming year. The Baylor Bears or Memphis Tigers, American University Eagles, Villanova Wildcats, and Oregon Ducks are all slapped on the schedule and each will pose a threat to the Fighting Illini.
Other than those matchups though, Illinois' nonconference schedule leaves a lot to be desired. Based on the 2013-14 season, Illinois will be facing teams with an average Ken Pomeroy ranking of 145.57, including a matchup with the Kennesaw Fighting Owls, who were ranked at No. 336 out of the 351 teams observed.
The Fighting Illini start off with three matchups with Georgia Southern, Coppin State and Austin Peay, who were ranked No. 289, 290, and 288 at the conclusion of the 2013-14 season respectively and finished a combined 39-57. From there, Illinois will then welcome the Ivy League's Brown Bears, who had the 29th highest Adjusted Tempo (possessions per 40 minutes) in the nation last year.
Next, the Illini will be shipping out west to take part in the 2014 Las Vegas Invitational at Orleans Arena. Their first opponent will be the Indiana State Sycamores of the Missouri Valley Conference. The Sycamores made a run to the Missouri Valley Conference Championship Game a season ago, before being ousted by the stupendous Wichita State Shockers. Depending on the end result of that contest, Illinois will finally play a team from a high-major conference, as they are set to take on either Baylor or Memphis, and either opponent should provide an early measurement for this Illini club.
After their stay in Vegas, the road trip continues down in the Southeast as Illinois makes a trip down to Coral Gables, Florida where Jim Larranaga's Miami Hurricanes await. Much like Illinois, Miami is coming off of a disappointing season after a Sweet 16 appearance in the 2013 NCAA Tournament. Interestingly enough, these two teams met that March, and the Canes were able to edge out the Illini 63-59 in that contest.
After welcoming the American Eagles to the State Farm Center in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois makes the venture out east to The Big Apple and The World's Most Famous Arena. Madison Square Garden will be playing host to the 2014 Jimmy V Classic, and Illinois will be squaring off with Villanova, who may be the preseason favorite to win the Big East Conference this coming season. Afterwards, it's back to The Prairie State, and The Second City as Illinois will face Oregon at the United Center in Chicago. After going down in Portland last year to the Ducks, the Fighting Illini will certainly be seeking revenge with their state's largest city behind them.
The matchup with the Hampton Pirates will then give away to the latest installment of The Arch Rivalry. Missouri and Illinois have waged many classic battles in the past and this year could be one for the Fighting Illini to make a strong push ahead in, being that Mizzou's program, now led under the direction of Kim Anderson, a former Tiger, is in a bit of transition. The Illini's nonconference schedule concludes with a matchup against Kennesaw State on December 27.
All in all, late November and early December are going to prove pivotal in showing what the Fighting Illini have in them before their Big Ten play begins. Other than that however, barring any disasters, Illinois should be relatively unscathed before the winter months.