Illinois hasn't had a winning season in Big Ten conference play since 2009-10. Since taking over in 2012, head coach John Groce has a record of just 24-30 in conference play. After back to back NIT appearances, the Illini will try to take the next step in 2015-16 and get back to the NCAA Tournament. Today, we take a look at the key games and stretches in Illinois' 2015-16 Big Ten schedule.
Illinois' Key Big Ten Games
-Illinois vs. Michigan (December 30)
The first game of an 18 game Big Ten schedule may not seem that important, but this one is for John Groce's squad. Michigan will likely come in to Champaign as a top-25 team for this game, while Illinois will be coming out of a relatively weak non-conference schedule that could see the Fighting Illini with a 9-3 or 10-2 record. The reason this game is so big is because of Illinois' next 3 games following this one. Illinois goes to Ohio State and Michigan State and then is home against Purdue. This home opening Big Ten game against Michigan could be a huge tone-setter for Illinois' Big Ten schedule. If they lose, they could face starting the Big Ten schedule 0-3 or 0-4. A win, however, could give Illinois the confidence they need to go on the road and beat a quality opponent.
-Illinois @ Northwestern (February 13)
In 2014-15, the Big Ten got 7 teams in to the NCAA Tournament. The 2015-16 season should see a similar outcome. Last season, the Illini were arguably the best team in the Big Ten not to make the tournament. This season, Illinois may be on that same bubble, and Northwestern could be a team they are fighting to get in against. A road win in this game could go a long way to getting the Fighting Illini back to the NCAA Tournament. While Northwestern will be a quality team this year, this is the kind of game Illinois needs to win to prove they belong on the right side of the bubble.
-Illinois @ Maryland (March 3)
Heading in to the 2015-16 season, Maryland looks like the best team in the Big Ten, and possibly the country. Luckily for Illinois, they will have a season's worth of games to scout and figure out the best way to compete against the Terrapins when they play them in the first week of March. Assuming Illinois is still in the hunt for a tournament bid at this point in the season, this game will be key as far as the 'eye test' goes. Maryland will probably come in to this game as a top-10 team, and if Illinois can prove they can play with the Terps, it may go a long way in proving the Illini belong in the post-season.
As mentioned earlier, the toughest stretch for Illinois will be their first four games of the Big Ten schedule. The Fighting Illini will play Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State, and Purdue right out of the gate in the BIg Ten. Three of these teams were tournament teams a season ago, and the other team, Michigan, looks like a top-25 caliber team in 2015-16. In the middle of this stretch, both the Ohio State and Michigan State games will be on the road. If Illinois starts their Big Ten season out going 0-4 in this stretch, it will be an uphill battle to be relevant in the conference. On the other hand, if John Groce's team can even go 2-2 in these four games, it could set the Fighting Illini up for a good year with a lighter schedule toward the end of Big Ten play.
While the Illini start off with four quality opponents, there is light toward the end of Illinois' Big Ten schedule. The Illini have a four-game stretch where they play Rutgers twice along with Iowa and Northwestern. They also end the year with Minnesota and Penn State in 2 of their last 3 games. Look for Illinois to be lurking around the bubble again in 2015-16, and the difference between being in and being out could come down to winning a road game at Northwestern in February.