It’s been a rough stretch for Illinois basketball, with the Illini losing out on some key recruits. Let’s face it. It’s been a rough decade for Illinois Basketball. Losing out on key recruits is nothing new, and more importantly the Illini haven’t had a winning record in league play since 2010, a streak they seem unlikely to break this season.
An experienced team managed only an 8-10 record last year and that feels like a best-case scenario this year. It’s rebuild time in Champaign under new coach Brad Underwood and the Fighting Illini will get plenty of shots at the Big Ten’s best this winter.
Today we take a glance at the Illini’s conference schedule.
Northwestern (12/1/2017 in Rosemont)
This is different. The Illini open Big Ten play on the first of December against their in-state “rival.” Northwestern will play in the Allstate Arena this year while their Evanston home undergoes a much-needed renovation. The Illini will likely be the underdogs in this one, but a feisty Illini team took down the Wildcats twice last year. Not only that, but this game marks Illinois’ first game in the Allstate Arena since their legendary performance there in March of 2005 (Arizona vs. Illinois).
Maryland (12/3/2017 at the State Farm Center)
Less than 48 hours after tip in Rosemont, the Illini will play their home conference opener against the Maryland Terrapins in Champaign. It will not be an easy assignment. Yes, Melo Trimble is gone, but the bulk of the talent remains for Coach Mark Turgeon. Illinois lost twice to Maryland last year, but was at least able to keep the score respectable in Champaign. Expect a similar result this year in the team’s only meeting.
Minnesota (1/3/2018 in Minneapolis)
Illinois travels north to re-open (?) Big Ten play against another difficult opponent. Minnesota, like Maryland and Northwestern, projects to be a tournament team and a Big Ten contender. Williams Arena is a tough venue and the Illini have been notoriously slow starters on the road in recent years. Gulp.
Michigan (1/6/2018 in Ann Arbor)
Everything I said above applies here as well. The Illini haven’t won in the Crisler Center since 2010. Only two days off between road games. This is a tough matchup.
Iowa (1/11/2018 at the State Farm Center)
“Iowa at home” has never not sounded like a winnable game. The Illini also took two from the Hawkeyes last year, and Iowa is a major wildcard this year, minus Peter Jok and following a weird season last year. Underwood has leash, but this game at least approaches “must-win” territory.
Nebraska (1/15/2018 in Lincoln)
The once-ascendant Tim Miles is suddenly on the hot seat after a disastrous year last year and turmoil in the Athletic Department. The Illini won this matchup last year, this will be a meaningful road test for Brad Underwood’s team, seeing if they can win on the road in a not-so-hostile environment.
Wisconsin (1/19/2018 in Madison)
Wisconsin will revolve around Ethan Happ this year, and you can count on another of their corn-fed 2 star recruits turning into an all-Big Ten caliber player as well. It feels like the Illini haven’t won in Madison in decades, though they also managed to win there in 2010. If you’re Brad Underwood, this is one where you at least want to remain competitive.
Michigan State (1/22/2018 at the State Farm Center)
Finally a return home after 5 of the first 7 on the road! The Illini draw the Big Ten favorite Spartans twice this year, but that may be more blessing than curse. Illinois has had more than its share of success against Tom Izzo, and a win here would put the Illini and Brad Underwood on the national radar, even if they were having a down year up until this point.
Indiana (1/24/2018 at the State Farm Center)
Two nights later the Illini get the new-look Hoosiers under Archie Miller. Indiana also lost a ton of talent, so this projects as a good matchup for the Illini, who badly need to gain the momentum back in this series.
Rutgers (1/30/2018 at the State Farm Center)
Rutgers has played competent basketball under Steven Pikiell and the Scarlet Knights have talent, so this is far from an automatic victory. Still, it will be panic time in Champaign if the Illini can’t come out with this one.
Ohio State (2/4/2018 in Columbus)
Ohio State is the Big Ten program in the most similar position to Illinois. If anything the Buckeyes are in worse shape after Thad Matta’s bizarre departure. More than likely, this will be a fight to avoid the league’s dregs.
Wisconsin (2/8/2018 at the State Farm Center)
The games come quickly now heading into the league’s accelerated home stretch. The Illini need to defend home court if they want to have a chance to make it back to the NCAA tournament, and this is exactly the kind of game they just haven’t been able to win the last few years.
Penn State (2/11/2018 at the State Farm Center)
Well now this is actually the exact matchup that sealed John Groce’s fate. A loss to the Nittany Lions in Champaign last year dropped the Illini to 14-12, and most fans wrote off the coach and the season. Malcolm Hill, Tracy Abrams, and others fought on valiantly, but the loss to Penn State was a backbreaker. Penn State has always had one or two talented guys but no team identity. That hasn’t changed. Brad Underwood needs to dominate this matchup.
Indiana (2/14/2018 in Bloomington)
It’s always nice to steal one in Bloomington. The timing could be right to do it.
Nebraska (2/18/2018 at the State Farm Center)
It’s possible Tim Miles will be a lame-duck coach by this point. Regardless the Illini need a strong showing here.
Michigan State (2/20/2018 in East Lansing)
Tom Izzo loves February tune ups almost as much as he loves screaming at refs.
Purdue (2/22/2018 at the State Farm Center)
The Boilermakers crushed the Illini last year in West Lafayette, and they look sneaky good this year even without Caleb Swanigan. It will be interesting to see how the Illini perform in this one.
Rutgers (2/25/2018 in Piscataway)
Illinois also ended their regular season last year in Piscataway and the result was heartbreaking. After running off four straight wins and getting themselves back in the bubble conversation (I’m grasping at straws here, an Illini tradition), Illinois lost to an impotent Rutgers team. I think Illini fans will be satisfied if this game actually means something again this year. Chances are it won’t.