The non-conference schedule Illinois basketball put together is a good one.
There are a lot of games that should be won, yet will still look good on the RPI. A handful of the non-conference teams should finish in the top-three of their conference.
The early season will be tough with the injuries that have hit the team. Even with the injuries though, the Illini will have a better team on paper and on the floor than most of their opponents.
Take a look at the schedule in three parts. The first five games will be difficult with the injuries, but the Illini need to come out of that at 4-1 or 5-0. The middle three games are tough games whether healthy or not. A 1-2 record would be OK, a 2-1 record would be good -- and 3-0 would be outstanding.
The back end of the schedule is set up well to go into conference play feeling good and with momentum. The Illini should be healthy at this point and should go 5-0.
Going 11-2, 12-1 or 13-0 would put the Illini in a situation where a 9-9 or better B1G would be a lock for the NCAA.
Going 10-3 would put the Illini in a situation that a 9-9 B1G record would have them as a very hopeful NCAA team.
Anything worse would put the Illini on an uphill battle for the NCAA Tournament heading into a rugged Big Ten.
Let's break the nonconference schedule down game by game.
North Florida - Nov. 13
This is a scary opening game in Springfield. An NCAA tournament team that returns their top three scorers. When you see a team that shot 39 percent from three, you better be ready to find shooters. 42 percent of North Florida’s shot attempts came from beyond the arc, so they are not afraid to put it up.
Tough opening game but one the Illini should and will win. Predicted record: 1-0
North Dakota State - Nov. 15
The Illini face there second NCAA team in three days. The Bison are a very solid team. They will be able to slow the pace and keep it close. A.J. Jacobson is a rising star and only a sophomore. He can shoot the three and put it on the floor. Kory Brown is the heart and soul of that team and had played in big games (and he is from Elgin HS). The Illini should be able to use their size and pound the ball inside.
Should be a low scoring affair with the Illini coming out on top. Predicted record: 2-0
Providence - Nov. 18
First road test for the Illini includes trying to shut down one of the top guards in the country in Kris Dunn, who will have a chance to be the Big East Player of the Year. He can score the ball in a variety of ways and gets his teammates looks with 7.4 a/g last year. Even with Dunn back, the Friars did lose a lot from a bubble team last season.
The Illini grind out a tough road win. Predicted record: 3-0
Chattanooga - Nov. 21
This is a team that was put together to play fast. Will Wade (now head coach at VCU) recruited a team to look like his days as an assistant at VCU under Shaka Smart. Now, first year coach Matt McCall has a lot of athletic players. McCall spent time under Billy Donovan so expect more pace from this year's team. This is a game that could have a lot of pace to it. The Illini will have a clear advantage inside.
The Illini win a quick paced game. Predicted record: 4-0
Chicago State - Nov. 23
Tracy Dildy does a great job of getting his players to play hard and be aggressive. This team will not be intimidated by the Illini. Dildy will play 12-13 players in a game and sub them in and out at a hockey pace. With Clarke Rosenberg gone to graduation, this team does not have a weapon to keep up with the Illini. This will be the Illini’s easiest game on the schedule to this point.
Illini pull away from Chicago State to win all 4 regular season games in Springfield. Predicted record: 5-0
UAB - Nov. 27
The Blazers return all five starters from a team that won an NCAA game over Iowa State. They are the favorite to win Conference USA. Robert Brown is a versatile scorer that went on a tear in the conference tournament and NCAA tournament. UAB has good size up front with Lee, Cokley and Mehinti. Neutral-site games are always about who jumps out early to gain momentum.
Illini win streak is snapped in a close one for first loss of the season. Predicted record: 5-1
Virginia Tech - Nov. 28
The Hokies are still a young team that is a few years away from making any noise in the ACC. This is a team that will most likely be in the bottom four of the ACC. Buzz Williams always gets his teams to play hard, but there are just not enough players out there yet. The biggest question in this game is how do the Illini handle coming off a loss to UAB.
In a grind it out game the Illini get back in the win column. Predicted record: 6-1
Notre Dame - Dec. 2
The ACC/B1G challenge also opens up the new State Farm Center. The Irish are a dangerous team lead by Demetrius Jackson, an explosive player that made a huge leap from freshmen to sophomore year. He pushes in transition, gets to the rim, finishes well in traffic and can make the three. Zach Auguste is capable of getting a double-double every night out. He mainly scores around the rim but is very efficient and runs the floor extremely well. Watch out for Steve Vasturia who flies under the radar but is a terrific all around player and will most likely match up with Malcolm Hill. If Nunn and Black are still out, this will be a very tough matchup for the Illini.
The Irish come into Champaign and steal a win. Predicted record: 6-2
Western Carolina - Dec. 5
Normally when you see a team that has three seniors returning who all averaged double figures as juniors, you get a little worried. This should not be the case here. The Illini should be able to get a lot of good looks on the offensive end. This is also a game that can be dominated on the inside for the Illini. The Catamounts should finish a few spots below Chattanooga in the Southern Conference.
The Illini get their first win in the new State Farm Center by double figures. Predicted record: 7-2
Yale - Dec. 9
The Bulldogs will come to Champaign as the favorite to win the Ivy League and have the reigning player of the league in Justin Sears. The Ivy League is wide open this year and this team is not as good as the Harvard teams that have come out in the past few years. It is still a dangerous team that went into UCONN and pulled off an upset last year. Look for the Bulldogs to be a 20 game winning team again this year. It will be a great test for the Illini big men trying to guard Sears.
The Illini enjoy their second straight double figure win. Predicted record: 8-2
UIC - Dec. 12
This Flames team needed to win three of their last four to get to 10 wins. It will be difficult to imagine them winning much more than that again this year. However, the last time the Flames brought a first year coach into the UC to face the Illini in 2010 they pulled off the upset. Don’t expect that this year. This is a team that really needs to focus on the defensive end as their numbers from last year were not good. UIC struggles to shoot from three, and they lost their best shooter from last year in Jay Harris. The Illini need to get past the mental aspect of losing four of the last six United Center regular season games.
The Illini win this one by double figures. Predicted record: 9-2
South Dakota - Dec. 19
The Coyotes will find themselves in the middle of the pack of the Summit League. This is a team that is still finding its way under second year coach Craig Smith. One thing that Coach Smith does extremely well is prepare his team. His scouting reports at Nebraska were as detailed as I have seen. So expect the Coyotes to be ready for the Illini. This team is extremely small up front. The Illini will be coming off finals week and that is a tough time to play. Pounding the ball inside will be a very good option in this game.
Expect a sloppy win for the Illini heading into the Braggin’Rights game. Predicted record: 10-2
Missouri - Dec. 23
This is Braggin’ Rights. It is a close game no matter what the records indicate. Every player looks forward to this game. Emotions are high. That said you still need good players to win this game. Right now, the Tigers don’t have the players. After losing two of their top three players from a team that won nine games last season, Mizzou is still in rebuilding mode. It is so difficult for a young team to win this game. The Illini will be much older than Missouri. It should be a healthy and full strength Illini team as well. Expect a close one, but not the finish from last year (a Rayvonte Rice buzzer beater).
Illini win this one by a few possessions. Predicted record: 11-2