Illinois doesn't have the toughest non-conference schedule by any means, but there are certainly a number of games that will be intriguing to watch, as six of Illinois' thirteen opponents made the NCAA Tournament last season. The Fighting Illini will need to play solid basketball throughout the early months in order to gain some momentum heading into Big Ten Conference play. Here are 3 key non-conference opponents for the Fighting Illini.
The grand opening of the newly renovated State Farm Center for the Illini will be accompanied with a good game against the Fighting Irish. Notre Dame is likely a pre-season Top 25 team, and even though they lose star players Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton, the Irish will still have plenty of available weapons. Zach Auguste will play a huge role in the post, while Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia remain excellent shooters on the wing.
It will be interesting to see whether or not Illinois can stick with Notre Dame in the paint. Auguste has the skill and physicality to assert his way on the block, and it is still unknown just what incomer Mike Thorne Jr. can do down low. If Thorne can play 40 minutes with Auguste, and Illinois' shooters can find the bottom of the net, then the Illini may be able to pull off the upset in front of a rowdy Orange Krush crowd.
An early season matchup against Ed Cooley's Friars is often overshadowed by a plethora of intriguing non-conference games. It would be quite unwise to sleep on Providence, a team that reached the NCAA Tournament last season as a six seed. That being said, the Friars have lost a lot of talent, and this game in Rhode Island could certainly swing in either direction. Without leading scorer LaDontae Henton, Providence is in the hands of rising star Kris Dunn. After averaging 15.6 points per game last season, Dunn passed up the NBA to try and lead Ed Cooley's Friars back to the NCAA Tournament.
Depending on the progression of Illinois' guards early in the season, it may or may not be able to snag a victory on the road. Providence should essentially be Illinois' first major test of the season, and both sides should put up a good fight in this one. A win for the Illini moves the team in the right direction, but a loss can be difficult to swallow that early.
This technically isn't a "set in stone" matchup just yet, but if Illinois can get past UAB, and the Cyclones beat Virginia Tech, then the Illini could go toe-to-toe with formidable Iowa State in the Championship of the Emerald Coast Classic. Iowa State is undoubtedly a Top 10 team heading into next season, and Illinois will have to play some of its best basketball if it wants a chance at pulling off the upset.
One of the best matchups to watch may be Malcolm Hill vs. Georges Niang. Both forwards like to play inside and out, and both will likely lead their respective teams in points next season. Whichever player can get going faster could be the difference between a huge upset, or a respectable loss for the Illini.
- North Florida