The Illinois men's basketball team is less than two weeks away from their regular season opener and for the residents of Illini Nation, it cannot come fast enough. We already know a lot about the teams in the Big Ten, so let's take a look at the non-conference opposition that Coach Weber and his team will face. We'll rank the degree of difficulty that the Illini will have against each opponent on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being a guaranteed win for the Orange and Blue and 10 meaning that the Illini will need to give it 110% and that might not be enough to win. This is part one, part two will be posted later in the week.
November 22, 2003
Western Illinois / Champaign, IL (Assembly Hall)
The Illini kick off the 2003-2004 regular season against in-state rival, the Western Illinois University Leathernecks. WIU will be under the guidance of first year head coach Derek Thomas, who was an assistant at Illinois for three months, before he left with Lon Kruger to go to the NBA. Thomas will be assisted by another familiar face, former Illinois administrative assistant Jeff Guin. Look for the Leathernecks to be led by 6-3 guard J.D. Summers (12.6 ppg) and 6-6 forward Will Lewis (11.4 ppg).
Degree of Difficulty: 3 (The first real game for the Illini, coupled with an in-state foe that has an assistant coach that is extremely familiar with the Illinois program could make this game tougher than most expect.)
November 26, 2003
Mercer / Champaign, IL (Assembly Hall)
Illinois will have one real game under their belt by the time the Mercer Bears arrive to give thanks in Champaign. Last year, Mercer improved their win total over the previous season by 17 games, an NCAA record. However, their starting backcourt from last year is gone. The Bears will try to get their points in the paint this year with 6-9 forward Scott Emerson hoping to do most of the damage. Mercer could be facing the thought of having 2 juco transfers starting at guard.
Degree of Difficulty: 1 (The only way the Illini lose this one is if they fall asleep after a pre-game meal of turkey and all the trimmings.)
November 29, 2003
Temple / Philadelphia, PA (The Palestra)
The Illini make a trip to the east coast to play in one of the most famous arenas in college hoops. The Palestra is known for hosting the Big Five games between the Division 1 programs in Philadelphia. The tiny gym will prove a daunting task for Coach Weber's team. The always feisty, John Chaney might also provide a daunting task for Illinois. Don't look for Temple to make a lot of noise in the NCAA tournament, but do look for the Owls to make life miserable for a few opponents. Apparently life has been miserable at Bill Cosby's favorite college, because six players left the school. But, Temple will return four starters, including 6-4 junior guard David Hawkins (16.9 ppg).
Degree of Difficulty: 7 (While Temple might not live up to the expectations of the fiery Chaney, they almost always match his intensity on the court. An early season road trip for the Illini could be a stumbling block).
December 2, 2003
North Carolina / Greensboro, NC (Greensboro Coliseum)
In an arena known for hosting wrestling matches between guys like Ric Flair and Dusty Rhodes, the Illini and Tar Heels take center stage in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. When Roy Williams left Kansas for North Carolina, he started the coaching carousel spinning. Bill Self wanted the office on Naismith Drive and left Illinois. Bruce Weber was brought to Illinois to keep the Illini on the right path. A win in this game would be a major step down that path. The Tarheels will seek revenge after last year's drubbing in Champaign.
The players in Chapel Hill had a big say in getting Matt Doherty pushed out the door. Williams now gets the chance of harnessing the young talent and getting them to focus game in and game out. The combination of Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants, Jawad Williams and Sean May must worry about on the court issues and staying away from injury if the Tar Heels want to return to prominence.
Degree of Difficulty: 9 (The Big Ten-ACC Challenge hasn't always been friendly to the Illini, with the exception of last year's Tarheel beat down. But, this game will be played on Tobacco Road and the Carolina players now have a coach they respect. Both squads could still be working the kinks out of their new coaches systems.)
Luther Head throwing one down against UNC
December 6, 2003
Arkansas / Chicago, IL (United Center)
The Illini make their first trip of the season to the House that Bill Wennington Built. Illinois and the Hogs meet for the third straight season. This game just seemed to miss something last year without Nolan Richardson and his cream colored suit.
Razorbacks head coach Stan Heath experienced trouble in his first season in Fayetteville. Arkansas went 9-19 and Richardson was fighting an unsuccessful battle to get his job back. Sophomore guards Jonathon Modica (11.5 ppg) and Eric Ferguson (10.9 ppg) should run the show. Look for 6-5 freshman Olu Famutimi to do some damage.
Degree of Difficulty: 6 (Look for the Illini to continue their winning streak in Chicago. Heath will get the Arkansas program back to where it came from, just not this year. Head to the Windy City to pick up an Illini victory and do some Christmas shopping afterwards.)