Some Early Predictions on the Illinois Basketball Non-Conference Schedule

Yesterday the UI Division of Intercollegiate Athletics officially released the non-conference schedule for the Illinois Fighting Illini men’s basketball team, with no big surprises.

Here’s a look at the schedule and some way-to-early predictions from my end.

After suffering 5 non-conference losses in 2009-2010 (Utah, Bradley, Georgia, Missouri and Gonzaga), the talented Illini will need to be more prepared prior to Big Ten play this upcoming season, especially when considering what looks to be an extremely challenging slate in November and December 2010.

While everyone is rightfully pumped about the trip to Madison Square Garden, the ACC/Big 10 Challenge versus UNC, the rematch with Gonzaga and the Braggin’ Rights against Missouri, two games that kind of scare me are against Oakland and Northern Colorado.

With that said, here are my early predictions on the Illini’s non-conference schedule.

Exhibition

Oct. 24 – Orange & Blue Scrimmage

→ After years of waiting, Illini fans finally get a look at Jereme Richmond in the orange and blue. That alone is worth the price of admission.

Oct. 29 – vs. Lewis at the Assembly Hall (W)

→ Illinois took on the Division II Flyers prior to the historic 2004-2005 campaign and should have no problem again with a Lewis squad that includes a slew of Chicago-area products, including freshman Mantas Dubauskas from Demetri McCamey’s high school (St. Joseph) and junior Jerome Robinson from my high school (St. Patrick).

Nov. 2 – vs. Southern Indiana at the Assembly Hall (W)

→ The Illini and Screaming Eagles have had a close relationship in the last few years, as D-II USI was where former Illinois guard Jamar Smith played and starred after getting dismissed from Illinois. With Smith using up his eligibility and having spent some time back at the Ubben Basketball Complex this summer, the Illini should be fine if coming out ready to play.

Regular Season

Nov. 8 – vs. UC Irvine at the Assembly Hall (W)

→ In the first round game of the 2K Sports Classic Benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer, Illinois head coach Bruce Weber should get to show off his team’s amazing depth against the Anteaters, which went 14-18 last season.

Nov. 10 – vs. Toledo at the Assembly Hall (W)

→ The second round of the 2K Sports Classic brings a Toledo team that was 4-28 last season but recently got a boost with the transfer of Michigan’s Anthony Wright, who received his bachelor’s in Ann Arbor and will now be pursuing his master’s degree, thus making him eligible for the Rockets this upcoming season.

Nov. 13 – vs. Southern Illinois at the Assembly Hall (W)

→ The Salukis have been down the last two seasons, but you can throw all the records out the window when former Illini assistant Chris Lowery takes on his old boss Weber, who led the Salukis to the Sweet 16 in the 2002 NCAA Tournament and the first round of the 2003 Tournament before arriving at Illinois. Even with Kevin Dillard and Anthony Booker transferring, the Salukis have some experienced upperclassmen, which should lend Weber’s first game against his old school to be hotly contested for a good 30 minutes before Illinois takes control. Illinois and Southern Illinois last met in Las Vegas during a Thanksgiving tournament in the 2001-2002 season (with Bill Self’s Illini narrowly escaping Weber’s Salukis), but should have matched up in the second round of the 2007 NCAA Tournament had the Illini not collapsed in a first-round loss to Virginia Tech.

Nov. 18 – vs. Texas at Madison Square Garden on ESPN 2 at 8 p.m. (L)

→ This game could go either way, but the always-talented Longhorns usually look like world-beaters early in the season. Even with Damion James, Dexter Pittman, Justin Mason and D.J. Richardson’s former Findlay Prep teammate Avery Bradley gone, Rick Barnes’ team returns Gary Johnson, Jordan Hamilton, Doge Balbay and J’Covan Brown and brings in yet another stacked freshman class in Findlay products Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph. Don’t be surprised if Illinois comes out a bit tight under the bright lights of MSG before getting back into a close game that should go down to the wire but turn on the Longhorns’ athleticism.

Nov. 19 – vs. Pittsburgh/Maryland at Madison Square Garden on ESPN2 at 6 p.m./4 p.m. (W)

→ I’m going to assume that Illinois loses to Texas and that Pittsburgh beats Maryland, thus pitting the Illini versus the Terrapins. Even with the clutch Greivis Vasquez, solid Landon Milbourne and underrated Eric Hayes having used up their eligibility, Gary Williams’ Maryland team returns sophomore big man Jordan Williams, who is very reminiscent to former Terrapin big man Lonny Baxter and should be a star in college basketball if he stays 4 years. While Williams will give the Illini some fits, Illinois will leave New York with a split (which would be ideal) as Weber finally beats the Terrapins after losing to them in the 2006 and 2007 ACC/Big 10 Challenges. If Illinois were to beat Texas and get an experienced Pitt team, the Illini will struggle with the Panthers’ interior girth and overall toughness. With all that said, Pitt should win this tournament, considering whom the Panthers return, the team’s familiarity with the Garden and the presence of Jaime Dixon, who always gets the most out of his teams.

Nov. 23 – vs. Yale at the Assembly Hall (W)

→ This was the one surprise on the Illinois nonconference schedule that I was not aware of. It’s safe to say that I don’t know much about Yale’s basketball program, which finished 12-19 (6-8 in the Ivy League) last season. Anyways, I’m actually quite interested to watch this game as I believe the last time Illinois played an Ivy League school was against Penn in the first round of the 2000 NCAA Tournament.

Nov. 27 – vs. Western Michigan in Kalamazoo, Mich. (W)

→ This game is part of a home-and-home basketball series that was scheduled as part of the football teams unfortunately hooking up (see the 2008 football season). Illinois crushed the Broncos by 35 last season (revisit the Illini Tale of the Tape). Steve Hawkins’ Western Michigan team finished 18-15 in 2009-2010 but will be without the services of high-scoring guard David Kool, who graduated. One player to watch on Western Michigan is 6-7 junior forward Flenard  Whitfield, who was recruited by Michigan to play football and gave the Illini some problems last season with his inside-outside game. With that said, Illinois should take care of business, though this game will be much closer and possibly in single digits.

Nov. 30 – vs. North Carolina at the Assembly Hall on ESPN at 8:30 p.m. (W)

→ Maybe it’s because North Carolina had a down year last season, but I’m feeling confident about this game. While UNC is extremely talented and brings in hyped freshmen Harrison Barnes and Reggie Bullock, the Tar Heels did lose the Wear twins, Ed Davis and the tough-as-nails Deon Thompson. Anyways, I like this matchup for the Illini, as Tyler Zeller doesn’t do much for me and John Henson’s body type is perfect for Mike Davis. For some reason, I expect Illinois to come out for this game like it did at home against Michigan State last February. Of course, this game should go down to the final minute like the MSU game did, but Illinois will make a big statement here in the ACC/Big 10 Challenge.

Dec. 4 – vs. Gonzaga at Key Arena in Seattle (W)

→ Man, this is a tough matchup after the UNC game, even with Matt Bouldin having graduated. I have not always been a fan of Gonzaga’s teams (see the Adam Morrison era), but I really like their big men, Robert Sacre and Elias Harris, and the competitiveness of Stephen Gray. With that said, Illinois should have beaten the Bulldogs last year at the United Center, even after falling down by more than 20 points in the first half and getting nothing out of Mike Tisdale, who was admirably replaced by Dominique Keller having the game of his Illini career. Recharging after Carolina and winning in Seattle will be extremely tough and not likely, but something tells me that Illinois will exact some payback here during another close game.

Dec. 8 – vs. Oakland at the Assembly Hall (L)

→ If there ever was a let-down game following the Carolina-Gonzaga week, it’s this contest against the Grizzlies, which lost to Pittsburgh in the first round of the NCAA Tournament but return big man Keith Benson, who like Demetri McCamey and Mike Davis declared for the draft before withdrawing. Long-time Oakland head coach Greg Kampe has built a very respectable program, and this game is like last season’s Wofford affair: extremely dangerous if the Illini aren’t ready. Despite Illinois’ talent, I’m expecting a couple of hiccups next season, especially when given the team’s maddening inconsistency and the fact that the Assembly Hall is not the home-court advantage it used to be. Illinois has traditionally handled the Grizzlies, but there’s always a first time for everything. Tentatively mark December 8th down as a day that the Weber bashers will be calling for his job. Wait a minute. Isn’t that every day?

Dec. 12 –  vs. Northern Colorado at the Assembly Hall (W)

→ Honestly, I don’t know enough about the Bears, which were 25-8 last season and will be coached by B.J. Hill this year after Tad Boyle left for Colorado, but this game has the makings of another tough one. After getting upset by Oakland, Illinois will survive a tight affair but look shaky in doing so.

Dec. 18 – vs. UIC at the United Center (W)

→ With Jimmy Collins retiring, this game would have been especially interesting if Jerrance Howard had remained a candidate for the Flames’ position, which has yet to be filled. This game could still be interesting if Illini assistant Jay Price is a serious candidate for the UIC job, though that doesn’t seem too likely now, considering that Price is coaching Brandon Paul, Tyler Griffey and other local college players in Belgium. After losing to Gonzaga at the friendly United Center last season, Illinois will regain its UC mojo here during a double-digit win. Of course, the bigger question is who will be coaching UIC this game? And when the heck is UIC going to name a coach?

Dec. 22 –  vs. Missouri at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis (L)

→ The Illini will be motivated to regain the Braggin’ Rights after losing for the first time in 9 years to Missouri last season. Even though the Tigers graduated some key seniors (Zaire Taylor, J.T. Tiller and Keith Ramsey) and heralded freshman Tony Mitchell’s eligibility is in question, Mike Anderson’s team will be fine, given its style of play. For some reason, I have a bad feeling that Illinois is going to lose a much closer game in 2010-2011, with this series becoming a real nail-biter and stomach-churner in the next five years.

Optimistically speaking, I have Illinois at 10-3 when Big Ten play starts, though I can easily see this team having 4 or even 5 losses again considering the toughness of this year’s schedule.

With that said, I’d be ecstatic if the way-more-talented but still highly unpredictable Illini were 10-3 to be honest with you.

Alright.

I can’t wait for the Big Ten schedule and this season to start already.

Until October 24th.

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