Countdown to Hoops II: The Schedule Post
Welcome back again to one of my favorite rites of Fall - the Schedule Post. A look at the best, the worst, and everything in between on the upcoming Illini hoops schedule. This one was especially fun as this 2018-19 lineup of games promises to be one of the most intriguing in recent memory. You can take a look at the full schedule here.
The most eye-opening component of this year's schedule is just how front loaded it is. The heavy lifting will be done in November and December with seven of the first nine games against power conference level opponents. There are really only two gimmes on the docket before dedicated conference play starts in January. (Well - three if you count MIZNOZ). So even though we may be catching a couple of the marquee names on the slate in a down cycle, if you like your non-conference dance card with a high degree of brand name recognition, this schedule is for you.
And while the Big Ten schedule might not be as top heavy as in recent years, the league's strength this year will be its depth, and as such the calendar will be chock full of Quadrant I and II type win opportunities in January, February, and March.
So while Robert is still fretting about the upcoming Big Ten football schedule, let's talk BASKETBALL SCHEDULE...
Best Road Trip: This year's choice is a lay-up. Of course it's Maui. The Maui Invitational is THE marquee early season college basketball tournament year in and year out. Every die hard college basketball fan should do the Maui Invitational at least once. Plus the field is flat loaded this year with heavyweights such as Duke, Gonzaga, Arizona, and Xavier. Heck you should go just for Duke's Zion Williamson.
Biggest "Must See TV" Game: Gonzaga in Maui. Oh just your everyday matchup against a Top 5 team - in the third game of the year. Thanksgiving week Monday - 10:30 PM local time. Of course you're watching this one.
Best Road Trip II: If you can't make it to Maui then consider a quick trip to New York City in January to watch the Illini play in Madison Square Garden vs St. John's. I mean Rutgers. Wait what - we're playing Maryland? In New York? Whatever - at least this one is on a Saturday.
Weirdest Game: Ohio State at the United Center I'm totally cool with not having the traditional Saturday in December non-conference game in Chicago. Let's be real - it hasn't served it's purpose as a program showcase game for some time now. I'm also actually cool with the idea of substituting in a conference game at the UC. But on a Wednesday? Not cool with that.
Most intriguing (potential) matchup: Iowa State. The Maui bracket allows for a potential second day game vs the Cyclones who feature three very recent Illini recruiting targets in Zion Griffin, George Conditt, and of course, Talen Horton-Tucker. This game - should it come to pass - brings with it some epic haunting potential.
Worst Game: Mississippi Valley State. I don't begrudge Brad Underwood this clunker, but the Delta Devils are consistently one of the worst programs in D-1 (341/344/348 out of 351 in KenPom rank over the past three seasons). You want to watch Illinois put triple digits up on the scoreboard - come to this game.
The "When I learn everything I need to know about this team" games:_ _UNLV and East Tennessee State. The Illini will return to Champaign after those whirlwind first three weeks for home games on back to back Saturdays in December against these two quality opponents. These are games that potential NCAA Tournament teams win. Period. These are also games that Illinois teams of recent vintage would lose. If they can manage to stay afloat through the early season gauntlet, and then come home to get these two W's - they will officially have my attention.
Best opportunity for a Quadrant I win (Home): Make a stand. Announce your arrival. Beat MSU in Champaign this February.
Best opportunity for a Quadrant I win (Road): Illinois will open the Big Ten schedule on the road in early December again - this year against Nebraska in Lincoln. The Illini will come into this game fully seasoned from their travels while the Huskers - who are popping up in some preseason top 25 lists - might still be trying to gain their early season footing. This game has solid upset potential.
Best Return Engagement: The Big Ten Tournament. Now that the Big Ten has finally finished with its East Coast flirtations, the BTT will return "home" to its Midwest rotation in Chicago at the United Center - and at the traditional "last game before the bracket is revealed" time slot thank you very much.
It's readily apparent that Brad Underwood wanted this schedule to have a much sharper edge compared to last season, and by all indications it looks like mission accomplished on that front. But, of course, the high profile games don't do any good unless you win your fair share of them. I'm still a long way from any kind of season prediction (there are just too many new faces for me to still sort through), but if you step back with your head tilted in the right direction and your eyes squinted at just the right angle, you might be able to envision a pathway through this schedule that could ultimately end an Illinois NCAA tournament drought that is now at five (!!) years and counting.
So now on to more immediately pressing business - recruiting! Fall is also "Basketball Official Visit" season and it kicks off in big time fashion this weekend as Underwood and his staff will be hosting three major recruiting targets (Oscar Tshiebwe, Terrence Shannon, Jr., and EJ Liddell) for their official visits. It is not hyperbole to write that this could be a program altering weekend. So I'm thinking my next post in this little series should probably focus on recruiting. Stay tuned.