While I took a light-hearted trip through the schedule back in September, I thought a deeper dive was in order before the season officially kicks off against Evansville on Thursday.
Much ado has been made about this Illini schedule. At Big Ten Media Day, Brad Underwood went so far as to call it the "toughest in school history." I'd probably tap the brakes before going that far, but without a doubt this year's slate represents a significant step up in class compared to recent years. So let’s get in there and break it down.
We should establish a frame of reference to give the schedule a proper once-over, and for the sake of our discussion here I'm going to use the preseason KenPom rankings. Any ranking system that exists before a single game has been played should be viewed with some skepticism, but at least KenPom uses actual data to come up with its initial ratings, and as I have to start somewhere; KenPom it is. As a baseline, I should also note that Illinois checks in at No. 85 on the list to begin the season.
While there are certainly more than a few marquee names on the docket, to me, the difficulty of this schedule lies more in the grind than in the name recognition. There just isn't much breathing room. I only count three true cupcakes over the whole slate — Evansville, No. 208; Florida Atlantic, No. 302; and Mississippi Valley St., No. 348.
In fact, there are only six games against teams ranked higher than 100 in KenPom, compared to twelve such games last season. Illinois might very well be underdogs in eight of the thirteen games on the schedule before we even hit January. Heavy lifting indeed for the 85th-ranked team in the land.
It's unlikely that Illinois will be able match last year's 10 non-conference wins, but that's kind of immaterial taking into account the degree of difficulty compared to last year. For my money, tangible progress is going to be measured by how the Illini fare in conference play. After a 4-14 league mark last year, can they work their way back to at least the middle of the pack?
As I hope you recall, the NCAA has developed its own team ranking system this year (The NET) and will also continue to use the Quadrant System to assess win quality and strength of schedule as follows:
Quadrant 1: Home 1-30, Neutral 1-50, Away 1-75
Quadrant 2: Home 31-75, Neutral 51-100, Away 76-135
Quadrant 3: Home 76-160, Neutral 101-200, Away 135-240
Quadrant 4: Home 161-353, Neutral 201-353, Away 241-353
Teams hoping to dance in March need a schedule with ample Quad 1 and 2 games — and they also have to win a fair share of them. Illinois had just ten Quad 1 opportunities last season and scuffled to a 1-9 mark over those games (suck it MIZNOZ!). As the schedule stands to start this season, there are seventeen Quad 1 games and another eight Quad 2 games. So even though talk about the postseason for this Illini team is light years premature, at the very least the schedule provides an opportunity that wasn't there last season, and I'll just leave it at that.
So where are the winnable games? Fortunately for you all, I have had my team of minions hard at work in a secret underground think tank developing the "Walk-on Holistic and Analytical Thought Encompassing Variables for Essential Ranking" (W.H.A.T.E.V.E.R.) system to properly analyze just that. We uploaded every last possible piece of data into our supercomputer and came up with the following projections:
(Current KenPom rating noted per team)
NO WAY: No. 9 Gonzaga (Maui); (H) No. 12 Michigan State; @ No. 14 Purdue; @ No. 18 Wisconsin; @ No. 26 Indiana.
5 games - Predicted record: 0-5.
PROBABLY NOT: (H) No. 18 Wisconsin; (H) No. 25 Michigan; (H) No. 26 Indiana; @ No. 31 Penn State; No. 34 Maryland (@NYC); @ No. 37 Nebraska; @ No. 57 Notre Dame
7 games - Predicted record: 2-5
MAYBE: (H) No. 31 Penn State; (H) No. 37 Nebraska; @ No. 35 Iowa; @ No. 51 Minnesota; @ No. 41 OSU
5 games - Predicted record: 2-3.
50/50 SHOT: Maui games 2 and 3; (H) No. 55 Georgetown; No. 41 OSU (@Chicago); @ No. 59 Northwestern; No. 67 MIZNOZ.
6 games - Predicted record: 4-2.
PROBABLY: (H) No. 51 Minnesota; (H) No. 59 Northwestern; (H) No. 144 UNLV.
3 games - Predicted record: 2-1.
GIMMES: (H) No. 149 Rutgers; (H) No. 158 E. Tennessee State; (H) No. 208 Evansville; (H) No. 302 Florida Atlantic; (H) No. 348 Miss Valley State.
5 games - Predicted record: 5-0.
The WHATEVER Projected Record: 15-16 overall/8-12 in conference. It's really hard to argue with such sound science.