USA Today // Mike Granse

Piper: Five takeaways from B1G schedule for Illini hoops

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper breaks down Illinois' conference schedule, which was announced on Thursday.

CHAMPAIGN -- The Illini hoops schedule is officially set, as the Big Ten announced the conference slate for the 2016-17 season on Thursday.

John Groce and his team will open up conference play on the road at Maryland on Dec. 27. The Illini will follow that with their Big Ten home opener on New Year's Day against Ohio State.

Illinois will play the regular season finale at Rutgers on March 4, and the Big Ten tournament will kick off in Washington, D.C. on March 8.

Here are five takeaways from the conference schedule for the Illini.

Click HERE to see the full schedule.

1. Challenging nonconference will help top-heavy start to B1G

Illini fans already knew that their team is going to be tested in a big way during nonconference play. Of course, that is always good for the RPI and trying to add some signature wins to the body of work. There seems to be another benefit as well, and that's to get the Illini ready for what will be a fight through the fire right away in the Big Ten.

Illinois opens with seven straight games against teams that are capable of being top-half contenders in the conference. The Terps will be the first test, and the Illini will host them in Champaign a few weeks later. Yes, Maryland lost Diamond Stone, Jake Layman, Robert Carter and Rasheed Sulaimon -- four of their top five scorers from last season. But Melo Trimble should be the best point guard in the Big Ten. They also have an infusion of talent that includes top-40 freshman Justin Jackson and grad transfer forward L.G. Gill. Don't sleep on them.

Illinois will play Ohio State in their conference home opener. The Buckeyes return all five starters from a team that went 11-7 in the Big Ten last season. Ohio State lacks depth, but they have a chance to make a jump in the standings this year. Illinois will also play Michigan twice during this span. The Illini are 1-7 against John Beilein during Groce's tenure. The Orange and Blue also have trips to Indiana (Jan. 7) and Purdue (Jan. 17) early on, and both squads are expected to be top five in the Big Ten -- and they'll likely be in the hunt at the top all season long.

Luckily, Illinois will be tested by the likes of West Virginia, Florida State/Temple, N.C. State, VCU and BYU in the nonconference to rev up the engine. They will also have the rivalry battle in the Braggin' Rights game against Mizzou on Dec. 21. Groce will need his team operating at full steam after a few days home for the holidays.

2. Illini need to capitalize on resume wins early on

Getting hit with a wave of tough games early on in the Big Ten schedule may not be seen as a blessing. But however you want to look at it, the Illini need to use those games as a chance to notch some resume-building wins.

During Groce's first season in Champaign, his team started 2-7 in Big Ten play. That also happened to be the only year his team went to the NCAA tournament. The Illini followed that bad stretch with an upset over No. 1 Indiana, and then a top-20 win on the road against Minnesota. It wouldn't be wise to bank on that kind of rebound with this schedule.

If the Illini take too many hits during the first seven games without a couple wins, their tournament hopes will sink rather quickly. They'll get a crack at highly-ranked Wisconsin on Jan. 31. But once February begins, Illinois may have just one NCAA tournament team on their remaining schedule. That bodes well for them when it comes to wins in number. But who you've beaten carries far more weight than a 20-win landmark on Selection Sunday.

3. Set up to rack up in February

The Illini have a big opportunity to get on winning streak in February. The Badgers come to town at the end of January. After that...

Feb. 4 - Minnesota
Feb. 7 - @Northwestern
Feb. 11 - Penn State
Feb. 18 - @Iowa
Feb. 21 - Northwestern
Feb. 26 - @Nebraska

That is the month of February for the Illini. Minnesota is bad. Penn State is going to have some young talent, but they will be at least a year away from doing real damage. You beat this team on your home floor.

Nebraska strolled into the State Farm Center and beat Illinois last year. Lincoln isn't an easy place to play either. But Nebraska lost Shavon Shields and Andrew White. Don't let Glynn Watson get any more revenge and you should be fine. Carver Hawkeye Arena can be a tough environment as well, and Peter Jok is a big-time player. But Jok is Iowa's only returning starter. Once again, Illinois should be the favorite to win that one.

Then you have Northwestern. The Wildcats defeated the Illini in their only meeting last year in Evanston. Groce is 3-3 against Northwestern during his time at Illinois. Chris Collins has a dangerous guard in Bryant McIntosh, along with a young but solid frontcourt. Still, this doesn't appear to be Northwestern's year.

4. Single dip for top-level teams

While the Illini don't have the luxury of any 'warmup games' to start the Big Ten schedule, one benefit they do have is just a single dip with the premier teams in the conference. Illinois will play Wisconsin, Michigan State, Indiana and Purdue just once apiece.

Games against Michigan State and Wisconsin -- who many have as the top two in the conference -- are both in Champaign.

The double dips for the Illini include Iowa, Michigan, Maryland, Northwestern and Penn State. None of those appear to be elite-level teams in the conference. Michigan and Maryland will not be easy. Northwestern isn't exactly a walk in the park.

But these aren't nearly as daunting as some other possibilities.

5. 10 to 12 wins is attainable

The Illini could very well have a rocky start. Heck, that is probably the expectation based on the schedule. Even so, the conference slate as a whole sets the Illini up with an opportunity to win 10 to 12 games.

Let's say they start 3-4 or even 2-5 through the first seven. Finish it out like so...

Iowa - W
@Penn State - W
Wisconsin - L
Minnesota - W
@Northwestern - L
Penn State - W
@Iowa - W
Northwestern - W
@Nebraska - W
Michigan State - L
@Rutgers - W

That's 11-7 or 10-8. Maybe they don't lose at Northwestern, although Illinois has swept a home-and-home against them just once since 2008. Maybe they pull the upset at home against Michigan State or Wisconsin.

Of course, the other side of the coin is that maybe they slip up where they shouldn't. You'd expect it to happen somewhere. But by the same token, this team has the talent -- if healthy -- to surprise you somewhere.

Put it all together, and this team has the ability to win 10, 11 or 12 games in conference play. Four teams went 12-6 last year behind Indiana (15-3) and Michigan State (13-5). Being in that fifth-to-sixth range is hardly out of the question for the Illini this season.

Ultimately, that stretch at the forefront of the Big Ten schedule will say a lot about where Illinois is headed.

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