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Breaking down the Illinois nonconference schedule

In my last preview of the Illini men’s basketball team I laid out my thoughts on the players, position by position, and included where I thought they might end up. In this piece I want to break down the nonconference schedule into three categories: Must win, Toss-up, and Good loss.

The categories are fairly self-explanatory, but for good measure, here’s how I break them down. Must wins are easy games, the kind put on the schedule to get the team closer to 20 wins. Not every team in the Must win group are pushovers, but for the most part Illinois should handle them with ease. Toss-ups are games that could go either way, especially at this early stage of the season. These teams have some success in their recent past and some promise for the future (much like the Illini). I think these games are critical for Illinois, but a loss in one or two of them is not damning (and a sweep is highly possible, given the depth of talent on the Illini roster this year). Good losses are the games that, so long as they remain competitive, won’t hurt Illinois when the selection committee considers them. These are games against highly ranked opponents that mostly boost strength-of-schedule and RPI.

With that in mind, here’s what I’m thinking.

Must win

Georgia Southern (Nov. 14th), Coppin St. (Nov. 16th), Austin Peay (Nov. 21st), Brown (Nov. 24th), Indiana State (Las Vegas Invite, Nov. 27th), American (Dec. 6th), Hampton (Dec. 17th), and Kennesaw State (Dec. 27th)

Besides the lack of name recognition on this list, the one thing that should stand out among these games is that (with the exception of the Indiana State game in Vegas) they all occur in Champaign. Losing one of these games at home would be really bad come Tourney time, as the selection committee would weigh such a loss heavily. None of these team really seem like they have the stuff to upset the Illini, though.

Georgia Southern had a very good game last year against Miami, forcing overtime and only losing by one (81-80). They return only two of the starters from that game, however, and the Miami game was the one big highlight of the Eagles’ year. Likewise, Coppin State, GSU’s Sun Belt brethren, had a subpar year in 2013-14, with one highlight–a 78-73 win over a mediocre Oregon State team. Coppin State returns six seniors, but that probably won’t be enough to trump Illinois.

Austin Peay was worse than either of the prior two teams on Illinois’ schedule, with a general dearth of highlights from last year. Their center, Chris Horton, averaged 13.2 points and 9.5 rebounds last year, though. Our Ivy League opponent, Brown, played a decent Northwestern team to a close game last year (58-52) and returns four of five from that team; but the Bears’ overall record last year (15-14) tells a better story of what they’re capable of.

Indiana State (23-11 in 2013-14) was one of the best teams in the Missouri Valley Conference last year, finishing second to Wichita State, but lost three of its top five scorers after last year. This game is in the Las Vegas Invitational, however, and Illinois will turn up for the tournament, so I don’t expect less than a win from Illinois in this game.

American is the only team in this grouping to have made the NCAA Tournament last year, but lost to eventual Final Four team, Wisconsin (and badly, 75-35). Four of five starters from that team are back this year, but those starters were the only ones to score against Wisconsin — the bench had a combined zero points. American will likely play a good game in Champaign, which is what Illinois needs as it closes in on Big Ten season, but this one is likely a win for the Illini.

Hampton had a decent record and returns all its starters from last year, but they really didn’t play any high-quality opponents, so I would take them with a grain of salt. Kennesaw State, Illinois’ last nonconference opponent, saw plenty of good teams last year, but only managed to win six games in total. It would take something special for them to turn things around and challenge the Illini, and I just can’t imagine that happening.


Baylor (Las Vegas Invite, Nov. 28th), Miami (Dec. 9th), Missouri (Dec. 20th)

Baylor made a great run at the Sweet 16 last year before falling to Wisconsin (beating Nebraska and Creighton in the process), but they come into this season with five newcomers replacing five of the team’s top 10 scorers from 2013-14. The biggest change for the Bears is the loss of depth inside, which likely places them on the bubble all year — not unlike the Illini. Of course, for Illinois to even play Baylor they’d have to either lose to Indiana State or Baylor would have to beat Memphis, so this matchup is unlikely.

Miami was awesome last year, but every one of the the team’s top six players left town after the Tourney. The Canes incoming class is fairly impressive, as unknown quantities go, but they’ll need time to gel and Illinois gets them early in the season, which bodes well for Illini fans. If Miami’s team really comes together and makes a Tourney run, a loss against the Canes wouldn’t look too bad, but as of now this should be a winnable game and at least a decent one for Illinois’s resume.

Missouri was picked by SEC writers to finish seventh in the conference this year. The SEC is not a great conference. Last year the Tigers lost to Southern Mississippi in the NIT and now they have a new coach (named Kim). That is all to say Miznoz is imminently beatable, but this is the Braggin’ Rights Game and everyone brings it for this game, so I wouldn’t call this one a lock either way.

Good loss

Memphis (Las Vegas Invite, Nov. 28th), Villanova (Dec. 9th), Oregon (Dec. 13th)

If Illinois is going to pull of a victory in any of these games (which I believe they will, and maybe more than one), I think Oregon is the most likely. Outside Joseph Young and his dynamic scoring ability (18.9 ppg), the Ducks are lacking depth. This is because of dismissals or transfers from five players and the academic ineligibility JaQuan Lyle (who was offered a scholarship at Illinois). With all those players not contributing and only nine players on the roster, the Ducks could wear out fast. Seeing as this game is 10 games into the season, it also gives the Illini a chance to adjust to life without Tracy Abrams running the point, which is another factor swaying the likelihood of a win toward Illinois.

Last year, in a very good conference (featuring Louisville and UConn, among others), Memphis really held its own, posting a 24-10 (12-6) record. The Tigers lost their top two scorers, but bring back Shaq Goodwin (11.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg) and Austin Nichols (9.3, 4.3) and have most of their highly regarded 2013 recruiting class on the roster and ready for more meaningful minutes. The Tigers are consistently getting votes in the polls and could climb into the top 25 before the Illini (if the Illini do, that is), making this game another difficult, although not unwinnable, matchup.

Nova is kind of the “forget about it” game for Illinois. Added to the schedule late, as Illinois is a replacement for Maryland in the Jimmy V Classic, this is a game against a preseason top-15 team in a very Villanova-friendly stadium. Basically, it looks good if Illinois shows up and minimizes the damage done. The selection committee isn’t going to look unfavorably on the Illini for a loss to Nova. If they win, well that’s just gravy.

The obvious best-case scenario is Illinois shocking everyone and getting to Big Ten play unblemished. The odds of that happening are slim, surely. But I think that there is talent on this Illini squad to win all the Must win games, sweep the Toss-ups, and win at least one of the Good losses. Such a scenario puts Illinois at 11-2 entering conference play, or at least halfway to an at-large bid.

Lots of things can and will happen between now and the start of Big Ten play (Dec. 30th) to change my mind about where this Illinois team is in its development under John Groce. But if they can reach conference play with even 10 wins, I think they can go on to earn a tourney berth and maybe make waves in the conference tournament as well.

I’ll save my Big Ten prognosticating until December, though.

Photos by Mark Jones/Illinois Athletics.

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