Blast from the past: Illini hoops season openers

With just three days left until Illinois' season opener against North Florida, lead basketball reporter Derek Piper takes a look back at season openers of the past.

The countdown has begun for the official start of the college basketball season, as the Illini prepare to take on North Florida at 7 p.m. CT on Friday in the season opener.

In recent memory, Illinois has not been presented with too much of a challenge to kick off the season. They have won their last 10 season openers by an average of 20.2 points.

However, the stakes have been raised this season with a tough task in facing a North Florida squad that went to the NCAA tournament last year.

Here is a look at back at other notable season openers for Illini hoops in the past.

11/16/2001 - #3 Illinois vs Gonzaga: Illini 76-58

Returning a trio of starters from a team that reached the Elite Eight, the Illini entered the 2001-02 season with their highest preseason ranking in 16 years. But Bill Self's talented group had their work cut out for them in the opener, as they matched up with Gonzaga at the Assembly Hall. Gonzaga was coming off a Sweet Sixteen appearance and they boasted star point guard Dan Dickau, who was later named a first-team All-American. The Illini were outshot and outrebounded against the Zags, but they forced 20 turnovers in the victory. Four Illini starters scored in double figures: Brian Cook (19), Cory Bradford (17), Robert Archibald (16) and Frank Williams (13).

11/10/1998 - Illinois vs Wake Forest: Wake Forest 75-73 OT

The Illini opened up the 1998-99 season in New York City at the Coaches vs Cancer Classic. It carried a special meaning for head coach Lon Kruger, who lost his father, Don, in a battle with skin cancer in January. Illinois was faced with a tough task of replacing four starters from a team that clinched a share of the Big Ten regular season title. The Illini debuted a sharpshooting freshman in Bradford, who was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Bradford led the way for Illinois with 20 points, but Wake Forest guard Robert O'Kelley scored a game-high 24 points in the win for the Demon Deacons. This was the only season under Kruger in which the Illini did not have 20-plus wins and go to the NCAA tournament.

11/25/1992 - Illinois vs Dayton: Illini 86-78 OT

The beginning of the 1992-93 season was a wild one for the Illini under difficult circumstances. Head coach Lou Henson lost his son, Lou Jr., in a car accident just five days prior to the opener at the Great Alaska Shootout. Henson attended his son's funeral on the 23rd and arrived in Anchorage the day before the game. That wasn't the only challenge that Henson faced. The Illini were just two years removed from receiving a one-year NCAA tournament ban and two-year restriction on scholarships. Meanwhile, Illinois was set to return senior forward Andy Kaufmann after he was declared academically ineligible the previous season. Many did not know what to expect, but Kaufmann and junior big man Deon Thomas led a resurgence for the Illini. They defeated Dayton in overtime and later reached the championship game against New Mexico State. The Illini fell 95-94 in a heartbreaker, but they went on to finish third in the Big Ten and reach the NCAA tournament once again.

11/25/1991 - Illinois vs Penn State: PSU 65-60

A dark cloud still hovered over the Illini basketball program entering the 1991-92 season. They were barred from the NCAA tournament the previous year despite finishing third in the Big Ten standings. Henson and his staff also could not recruit off campus or host any official visitors during that time. To make matters worse, Kaufmann was declared academically ineligible in the fall of 1991 after leading the Illini with 21.3 points per game as a junior. That kick-started a tough season in Champaign that saw the Illini win just 13 games, which tied for the fewest under Henson during his 21 years at the helm. Penn State returned four starters from a team that beat UCLA in the first round of the NCAA tournament the previous season, and that was a bad recipe for the Orange and Blue.

11/18/1984 - #2 Illinois vs #5 Oklahoma: Illini 81-64

The Illini knew they were one of the best teams in the country heading into 1984-85 season, and they were hungry to prove just that. Henson's squad clinched a share of the Big Ten title the previous season and lost a heartbreaker against Kentucky in the Elite Eight at Rupp Arena. But that was in the past when the Illini opened up at the Hall of Fame Tipoff Classic in Springfield, Mass. in a high-profile matchup with the Sooners. Oklahoma featured star big man Wayman Tisdale, who went on to be drafted No. 2 overall in the 1985 NBA Draft. But Illini senior big man George Montgomery refused to lose the battle in the paint. Montgomery was named MVP of the game for his 17 points, 10 rebounds and defensive showing against Tisdale. The Illini could have matched up with defending champion Georgetown instead, but the Hoyas declined an invitation to the event.

11/30/1979 - Illinois at #15 BYU: Illini 86-76

Illinois basketball was a little difficult to predict in the fall of 1979. The Illini started 15-0 the previous season and upset No. 1 Michigan State in Champaign on a buzzer-beater by Eddie Johnson. However, the Orange and Blue went just 4-11 to close out the schedule and finished seventh in the Big Ten standings. But the arrow was pointing up with Henson bringing back his top seven scorers. That being said, Illinois was a definite underdog heading on the road to face BYU and scoring guard Danny Ainge in the opener. The Illini battled to have the game tied at 72 in the second half, and they went on a 14-4 run to close out the victory. Junior forward Mark Smith led the way with 20 points, and senior guard Rob Judson added 18 points as well. Ainge finished with 19 points, although he had just five in the second half.

12/4/1964 - Illinois vs #2 UCLA: Illini 110-83

The Illini faced a daunting task to open up the 1964-65 season by hosting UCLA at the Assembly Hall. John Wooden's team was coming off a 30-0 season and a national title. But after losing in Los Angeles by just four the previous year, Illinois was ready for the Bruins this time around. The Illini came out firing on all cylinders and ran UCLA right out of the building. Head coach Harry Combes had six players score in double figures with his team thrashing through UCLA's press defense. Illini center Skip Thoren led the way with 20 points, as the team shot 58 percent from the field as a whole. Wooden went on to write in his book that the drubbing against Illinois was "probably the worst lacing of my coaching career...We just got slashed to bits."


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