Before we deep dive in to the nuances of this season's schedule, some new context is necessary. This past summer, the NCAA Tournament Committee revealed an overhaul of the metrics they will be using to rank "win quality" this season. The primary change involves assigning more weight to where a game is played compared to the focus in prior seasons on the simple raw RPI ranking of the opponent. A quick primer:
Each game on the schedule (except for the game against D3 Augustana) will fall into one of four weighted columns - ranked in descending quality from 1 to 4:
- Column 1: Home games against teams ranked 1-30, neutral games vs. top-50 teams, road games against top-75 teams.
- Column 2: Home games against teams ranked 31-75, neutral games vs. 51-100, road games vs. 76-135
- Column 3: Home games against teams ranked 76-160, neutral games vs. 101-200, road games vs. 136-240
- Column 4: Home games against teams ranked 161-351, neutral games vs. 201-351, road games vs. 241-351
So obviously, the more games a team has on its schedule in Column 1 or 2, the more opportunities exist to post "quality wins" to an NCAA Tournament resume. Applying these criteria to Illinois' schedule using preseason KenPom rankings as a starting point, we find the following: out of 13 non-conference games there is exactly one opportunity for a Column 1 or Column 2 win (@Wake Forest). In contrast, out of 18 Big Ten conference games, 16 fall into Column 1 or Column 2 with only home games against Rutgers and Nebraska sitting in Column 3.
While Brad Underwood might be thankful for the chance to ease his young team into a comfort zone with a soft early schedule - opening with six straight home games, Illini fans looking for some excitement at the SFC are going to have to be a little patient. So with that as a backdrop, here is a quick take on the best, the worst, and the weird of the 2017-2018 Illini schedule:
Best Non-Conference Home Game: Maryland (December 3). Wait, what? That's actually a Big Ten Conference game? In early December? Well that's just weird. We also play a conference road game at Northwestern that same weekend. In Rosemont. On a Friday. Weird and weird. Still, those two games will provide a crucial early litmus test for Underwood's young squad.
(For those wondering, you can chalk these early December conference games up to the 2018 Big Ten Tournament being moved to New York City (also weird). With the Big East owning the traditional time slot leading into Selection Sunday, the BTT gets shoved back a week thus necessitating that regular conference play be wrapped up by late February. To make that happen, there are December conference games scheduled throughout the league. Say it with me again - weird.)
Worst Non-Conference Home Game: All of them. The average KenPom ranking of our home non-conference games is north of 200. When your best home game is against a DePaul program that has averaged just three conference wins per year since joining the Big East, well, yuck. You just cannot lose any of these games. I guess the Grand Canyon game (December 30) at least has the THUNDER DAN factor going for it.
Best Non-Conference Away Game: You might want to say Wake Forest (November 28) as it's our only shot as of right now at a true quality win in the non-conference, but let's be real - it's Mizzou (December 23). The matchup with Cuonzo and the Fighting Porters figures to bring the juice back to a Braggin' Rights game that has been sorely lacking of buzz in recent years. Plus it's back on the Saturday NIGHT before Christmas - where it belongs.
Best Road Trip: UNLV (December 9). Illini weekend in VEGA$. Enough said.
Best Conference Home Game: Michigan State (January 22) Even through the malaise of the past few seasons, the State Farm Center always comes to life when Sparty comes to town. Izzo has his best team on paper in years, so this game figures to be no different.
Most Important Stretch: January 24 - February 11: Indiana (H) - Rutgers (H) - Ohio St (R) - Wisconsin (H) - Penn State (H). A stretch of five winnable games with four of the five in Champaign. A golden opportunity for this team to string together some wins and get on a roll heading into the final two weeks of the conference season.
So how does it all shake out? It's tough to say with any real certainty with this new ranking system in place, but my primary takeaway is that it's a really tough schedule from which to build an NCAA tournament resume. The strength of it -at least here on Day 1 - is almost entirely conference dependent, and there is almost no margin of error due to the weakness of the non-conference slate.
Underwood has talked often in recent weeks about how he expects his team to evolve over the course of this season - emphasizing that team we see in November will not resemble the one we see in February. Pretty standard boiler plate talk that you hear from just about any coach in November to be honest. But if he has his sights set on an NCAA tournament berth in his first season here - then those words will need to prove true as his team better be ready to win its fair share of conference games come January.
The most plausible pathway through this schedule for an NCAA Tournament bid would, I think, involve an 11-2 trek through the non-conference (one win among Wake/Mizzou/UNLV and no bad losses) and then 9-9 in conference. A .500 conference record will likely come with at least 7 "quality" wins and that's always been a pretty good benchmark.