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Ranking potential Illinois basketball in-state opponents

Illinois will play DePaul for the first time in 60 years. Should Illini embrace playing in-state programs more often?

Pumped about that DePaul game this November, Illinois fans?!




Well, Blue Demons fans certainly are.

But even Illini fans would admit that some in-state matchups, like DePaul, are a lot more interesting than some of the recent alternatives -- with all due respect to 2016 non-conference opponents Southeast Missouri State, Detroit and IUPUI.

Given that the two high-major in-state programs haven't played since Dwight D. Eisenhowser was in the White House, there actually will be some buzz around the game. Chicago media will have some interest -- well, depending on what the Bears are doing at the time. 

Count me as one intrigued and somewhat excited about the matchup, created thanks to the Gavitt Tipoff Games scheduler. As a media member, non-conference games against in-state programs provide a nice storyline boost to otherwise "meh" matchups. 

But they are a rarity for several rational reasons. Illinois has little to gain by playing in-state non-conference opponents.

Most in-state opponents won't bring a huge uptick in attendance, which the Illini certainly could use.

The Illini also have little wiggle room in a non-conference schedule that already includes one Thanksgiving tournament per year, a Big Ten-ACC Challenge game, the Missouri game, a United Center game and a Gavitt Tipoff Games matchup every other year. Using one of their few open spots on an in-state opponent isn't very appealing to the Illini.

And obviously a loss to most in-state programs would provide further embarrassment for a program that has had too much embarrassment during the last decade -- the Illini have made just three NCAA Tournaments during the last 10 years. But Illinois rarely loses to non-conference out-of-state programs, and refusing to schedule them shows a bit of gutlessness -- at least that's what other fan bases say.

Speaking of, most in-state opponents will harm, not help, the Illini's NCAA Tournament résumé due to low metrics numbers (RPI, KenPom, Sagarin, etc.).

The truth is that other in-state programs are much more desperate for a shot at the state's flagship program. The Illini would be the Super Bowl, the most anticipated matchup of the season, for almost every other in-state fan base. A win would be an all-time highlight.

But if the choice is between scheduling uninteresting, bad, out-of-state non-conference opponents or an in-state program, I'd rather keep the game -- and money -- in state.

Here are the options, ranked.

Ranking potential Illini in-state, non-conference opponents

1. Illinois State - No upside to playing the Redbirds? Illinois is 8-0 all-time against ISU and the Redbirds would've given the Illini a top-50 RPI opponent last season, a top-120 RPI opponent in 2015-16 and a top-60 RPI opponent in 2014-15. With a loss to Central Florida in the second round of the NIT, Illinois State missed its chance to host the Illini for the first time since 1920 (when the Illini won 32-20). But this would be the Redbirds' game of the century and would provide a fun home atmosphere for Illini fans at State Farm Center.

2. DePaul: The Blue Demons usually have an RPI below 200, but the program has added some buzz with assistant Shane Heirman landing top-50 Class of 2018 prospect Tyger Campbell and the possibility of landing five-star 2017 forward Brian Bowen. This is fun -- well, relatively -- just because most of us have never seen it.

3. Loyola - Maybe a little higher than you expected? But Porter Moser has the Ramblers on the rise in the Missouri Valley. They were one of four teams in the state to finish in the top-100 of the KenPom (97th), along with Northwestern (38th), Illinois State (49th) and Illinois (66th). The Ramblers -- which were a top-200 RPI team last year -- just signed another solid recruiting class, led by Lucas WilliamsonCameron Krutwig and Christian Negron. These two teams played seven times in six years from 1981-1986, when the Ramblers won two of them, but have have played just three times since. Illinois is 12-3 all-time against Loyola.

4. Southern Illinois - Believe it or not, Illinois and SIU have played just three games, the last an 85-63 Illini win in Champaign in 2010. The Salukis are long past their early 2000s heyday, so there's not much buzz around this matchup anymore. Illinois shouldn't feel threatened as Barry Hinson's program appears to have a bit of a ceiling. He's cleaned up the program, leading them from point A to point B. Can he take them to point C?

5. Bradley - The Illini are 12-3 all-time against Bradley, but this series has traveled all over the state -- 10 in Champaign, three games in Peoria, two in Chicago, one in Hoffman Estates -- and one out of state (a 72-68 Bradley win in Las Vegas). Bradley, which has been near the bottom of the MVC for the past seven seasons, doesn't offer much for Illinois after finishing 219th in the RPI last season. But Brian Wardle is slowing rebuilding the once-proud Peoria program, leading the Braves to a sixth-place MVC finish last season.

6. Eastern Illinois - Not much for the Illini to gain here, but they could throw a bone to former Illini hoops player and associate athletic director Tom Michael, the current EIU athletics director. The Panthers -- which are 0-6 against the Illini all-time -- could use the money and haven't had a shot at the Illini since 2002. 

7. Northern Illinois - The Illini and Huskies have only played once before, an 80-61 Illini win in Champaign in 2009. The Convocation Center is a nice MAC venue, Mark Montgomery has led the program back to respectability after the dark days under Ricardo Patton. But this matchup has way more intrigue on the gridiron. 

8. Western Illinois - The Leathernecks have a cool name but lost a lot of intrigue points when effervescent quote machine Jim Molinari left Macomb for an assistant role under Nebraska coach Tim Miles. The Illini are 5-0 against WIU (with a huge average margin of victory) but haven't played the Leathernecks since 2003.

9. SIU-E - I guess Mark Smith adds a storyline to this game since his parents, Anthony and Yvonne, both played at SIU-E. The Illini are 3-0 against the Cougars, all 20-plus point wins.

10. Chicago State - Illinois is 12-0 all-time against the Cougars, but we all still have nightmares of the Illini needing a last-second Jalen Coleman-Lands three to beat CSU 82-79 in Springfield in 2015.

11. Illinois-Chicago - Enough of the Flames already -- though the sister schools certainly will continue to play. The two teams have 16 times since 1987 -- twice in Rosemont, once at UIC (1996) and five times at United Center (yuck!). This series has "flamed" out -- come on, you know that's a phenomenal dad joke.

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