Scheduling for the Big Picture

Find out why Fletcher Page approves of the Illinois basketball schedule.

CHAMPAIGN – Call me lame or just plain boring, but I'm a fan Illinois' home, out-of-conference schedule.

Actually, I love the way the entire early portion of the schedule works out, for professional and personal reasons. But I could see why you wouldn't.

It's a slate with player-development in mind (which should always be the goal, right?), not for the fan seeking a thrill in The State Farm Center in November or December. I understand people want to attend as many games that move the needle as possible. I get that there's probably not going to be an overwhelming push to the turnstiles to see Dartmouth on a Tuesday night.

But the schedule sets up nicely for who it's supposed to – John Groce and his roster full of new faces.

**View the full schedule here**

You guys already know the details. This team is completely different. It's not fair to call the whole bunch young or inexperienced – but they haven't logged much time together. Some of the expected integral pieces to this year's team have never played in the Big Ten or the NCAA Tournament.

So while the fans may turn palms up when looking at a schedule card or sit out a few of these home snoozers, the players are going to utilize each and every step.

My take is this… The home slate offers seven games that should be wins. Wins build confidence. Confidence helps chemistry.

Alabama State, Jacksonville State, Chicago State and IPFW aren't going to move you through name recognition. Valparaiso (26-8 last season, the name Keith Carter ring a bell?) and Bradley (assistant Dustin Ford's father Geno is the head coach) at least are known commodities.

I know, I know, you're not clamoring for tickets. But this will be a good time to figure out who's backing up Tracy Abrams at the point, for Ray Rice and Jon Ekey to acclimate themselves, for Kendrick Nunn, Malcolm Hill and the other freshmen to catch their breath and find their way.

Lessons are going to be learned. You hope wins accompany the lessons.

OK, here's what I like even more about the schedule. When I say like, I really mean love. There's no Maui Invitational this year, so what has Groce done to simulate the tournament atmosphere and lifestyle? There are four neutral site games in the span of 20 days in December. Point blank – I love it.

College football is all about the regular season. You survive that and you get to play in one game to rule them all. College basketball is the opposite. It's all about tournament play. Winning tournaments is all that matters. The regular season is important, but every single game isn't live or die; at least not until March.

So… The Illini have games against Auburn in Atlanta, Oregon in Portland, Missouri in St. Louis and UIC in Chicago.

The venues those games are played in, Phillips Arena, the United Center, etc., are exactly the type of places the NCAA and conference tournaments are held.

Different time zones, different teams, different places… come March you better be ready. Groce and the team learned through the Navy Seal training this summer – you have to be comfortable being uncomfortable. This is how you get prepared.

Also on the schedule are two additional games on the road, at UNLV and at Georgia Tech. The Rebels will vie for the Mountain West, but both of these games are winnable contests on opposing courts. These will be the answer-to-adversity tests.

In sum, I go against the wish of many fans that call for more marquee games at home. I like this schedule because I think it has the potential to build confidence early and establish mental toughness and tournament-style experience by December's end.

By that time, you'll start receiving your fix of top tier teams when Big Ten high rollers like Indiana, Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan pay their visits.

And oh yeah, another thing I dig is there are two games in my home state of Georgia, which should lead to a few drinks with my old man and some quality time with my friends and family.

Yawn if you want, but I give the schedule two thumbs up.


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