Smile Politely

Proving time: A look at Illinois’s Big Ten opponents

When I wrote up a preview of Illinois’s nonconference schedule, I included games that were must-wins, toss-ups, and good losses. I was wrong about where the line was between toss-up and good loss (Memphis never even made it to the Illini in the Las Vegas Tourney and Miami and Oregon were the opposite of what I expected from them), but I finished by stating: “If [the Illini] can reach conference play with even 10 wins, I think they can go on to earn a tourney berth.”

Here we are, with Illinois travelling to Michigan for the first conference game of the year sporting a 10-3 record and I’m still confident in my preseason assessment. How confident? I’m not betting the house on it, but I’m not one of the people who saw the loss to Oregon as a back-breaker, either.

The Big Ten has played out so far in surprising fashion. If you predicted Penn State to be atop the standings and Michigan to be at the bottom before the first conference game then I’d like to go to Vegas with you. Because of this weird start to the season and the always weird way the Big Ten plays out, it’s hard to accurately forecast what is going to happen, but here’s my best shot.

Possible conference champions

Wisconsin (12-1; Feb. 15 in Madison): Obviously going to the Final Four last year makes them the favorites for the Big Ten crown. With just a close loss to a great Duke squad on their resume, the Badgers look like they’ve retained the talent from last year and are poised for another great run. The sheer size of Wisconsin is intimidating, with Frank Kaminsky (7’0”), Sam Dekker (6’9”), and Nigel Hayes (6’8”) dominating the interior. Everyone Bo Ryan plays is also well-drilled and knows where they fit in the system. When Illinois travels to Madison, don’t hold your breath for a win.

Maryland (12-1; Jan. 7 in Champaign): Being new to the conference, I don’t know much about Maryland, but anyone can look at the Terps’ stats and see that they are not messing around. Their big three–Melo Trimble, Jake Layman, and Dez Wells–are all averaging more than 15 points per game and the bench has 5 players averaging more than 12 minutes per game. Seeing Trimble in person might be one of the highlights of the season, even if Illinois loses.

Ohio State (11-2; Jan. 3 in Columbus): Coming into the season everyone knew what Sam Thompson and Amir Williams could do, but its been underclassmen like D’Angelo Russell, Marc Loving, and Kam Williams that have been the big difference for OSU. Which really should be no surprise, because Thad Matta recruits his guys and gets them to play at a high level every year. I expect his team will once again be one to watch in March and could threaten Maryland and Wisconsin for the title, but they could stumble along the way.

Tourney teams

Minnesota (11-2; Jan. 24 in Minneapolis): Kudos to little Pitino for scheduling a game against pops and boosting his team’s RPI. The wins on the Gophers’ schedule may not be that impressive (Georgia likely being the best of the bunch), but just hanging with St. John’s and a Louisville in losses will likely benefit the team. Andre Hollins continues to excel for Minnesota, but he finally has some good support, and I think that clinches Minny’s Tourney berth.

Michigan State (9-4; Feb. 7 in Champaign, Feb. 22 in East Lansing): I don’t bet against Tom Izzo making the Tourney, that’s a fool’s errand. Losing to Texas Southern really hurt the Spartans in the rankings, but their other losses are good and their conference schedule isn’t terrible. No individual really has great star power on the MSU roster, but the bench is deep, which is dangerous. If Illinois can split with MSU this year it would be great for the Orange and Blue.

Bubble teams

Penn State (12-1; Jan. 31 in Champaign): I’m not buying the hype on PSU just yet. I think DJ Newbill is a baller, but his 21.4 points per game are inflated, just like the team’s record, by a weak nonconference schedule. The Nittany Lions have played just one game against a top-100 team (according to, and they lost to Charlotte, who are likely not a Tourney team. Penn State also has a tough conference schedule this year, playing Wisconsin, OSU, and Minnesota twice, so getting above 20 wins and into the Tourney may be difficult.

Indiana (10-3; Jan. 18 in Champaign): Tom Crean hit a home run with James Blackmon Jr., and Yogi Ferrell is the truth. Beyond that, well I don’t think Indiana is too spectacular. Good wins against SMU and Butler will be important for them, but they lost to Eastern Washington, which is important for other reasons. Add to their ongoing disciplinary issues the fact that they play Maryland, OSU, and Michigan State twice, and I’m skeptical of where the ceiling for Crean’s team is.

Iowa (9-4; Feb. 25 in Champaign): Iowa has struggled (lost to Northern Iowa on Dec. 20) and will continue to struggle as it goes against OSU, Wisconsin (both twice), and Maryland in its first 10 conference games. Things don’t get a lot better in the last 8, as the Hawkeyes have to play half on the road. If they can somehow pull off a couple of good wins and get on a roll at the end of the season, maybe they break into the Tourney, but I don’t think Fran McCaffery’s team has the offense for it.

Playing for a good NIT seed

Nebraska (8-4; Jan. 11 in Champaign, Mar. 4 in Lincoln): Terran Pettaway is first team All-Big Ten, and Shavon Shields is at least an honorable mention, but the drop-off in talent after those two is significant. No one else is averaging more than 10 points per game and the Huskers are only marginally better on the defensive end. Even though most people thought this would be a year of continued rise for Nebraska, I don’t see them cracking the field for the Tourney. Illinois needs to win one of these but would be very well served to make the most of both games.

Michigan (7-5; Dec. 30 in Ann Arbor, Feb. 12 in Champaign): This is the weirdest team in the Big Ten this year. Picked by no beat writers to finish worse than 6th in the conference, the Wolverines then went out and lost to NJIT and Eastern Michigan in a string of 4 straight losses. Caris Lavert is crazy talented and can propel his team at times, but there’s been too much inconsistency from Michigan to expect much. With Jim Harbaugh (allegedly) being announced as the football coach at Tuesday’s game, Illinois may struggle with the atmosphere, but that makes beating Michigan in Champaign a must.

Basement dwellers

Northwestern (9-4; Jan. 14 in Evanston, Feb. 28 in Champaign): Do you ever feel bad for Northwestern basketball? I don’t, but I think I should. I mean, they’ve never even made an NCAA tournament. They’re not going to this year, either, so maybe I should feel bad, but nah. ranks the Wildcats behind teams such as Cleveland State and North Carolina Central, so winning both games is something Illinois absolutely must do this year, otherwise fans will be feeling sorry for themselves.

Purdue (8-5; Jan. 21 in Champaign, Mar. 7 in West Lafayette): Our publisher won’t like this, but his choice in basketball allegiance is clearly suspect: Purdue is a dumpster fire. The team’s leading scorer is pulling in a hefty 11.5 points per game, this after playing powerhouses like Samford, IUPUI, and Gardner Webb (whom they somehow managed to lose to). Purdue has a relatively easy conference schedule, but they’ll fuck it up. Illinois needs two wins against the Boilermakers this year.

Rutgers (8-5; Feb. 3 in Champaign): The other new Big Ten team is as advertised: bad. The Scarlet Knights had a weak nonconference schedule and still came out with just 8 wins. They’re going to get run over in Big Ten play. Their leading scorer is at least averaging 13 points per game, though. If Illinois doesn’t beat Rutgers, fans should burn the A section of State Farm Center.

As for Illinois, they’re firmly a bubble team at this point. Maybe I’m being a homer, but I think they’re closer to selection than any other Big Ten bubble teams, at least right now. The inconsistency seen in games against Oregon and Missouri are troubling, and it makes you wonder if scheduling Coppin State, Austin Peay, and Kennesaw State was really such a wise move, as they provided no resistance and little preparedness for Big Ten play.

When Illinois is firing on all cylinders, however, they can play with the best of the conference. Just two years ago John Groce’s squad beat #1 Indiana in Champaign after losing 8 of the previous 10 games, which illustrates how odd conference play can be when a team has a good night.

Illinois did basically what was asked in nonconference play and now have the record to show for it. If the team can get through any weirdness in Big Ten play, as well as avoid the January slump Groce’s teams always seem to slide into (3-12 in January under Groce), then there’s a good chance they’re dancing.

The easiest path for this would be sweeping 2 against Northwestern and Purdue, beating Penn State and Rutgers, winning 1 of 2 against Michigan and Nebraska, and then getting two wins from the Indiana, Iowa, Michigan State, Ohio State, Maryland, or Wisconsin games. This 20-win scenario is achievable, but unlikely if only because of how the league will shake out over the next two-and-a-half months. The talent is there, though, and now its time for the Illini to prove their mettle.

Related Articles