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 pack a lunch and put on their working shoes. Part one was earlier this week, so get ready for part two.
December 9, 2003
Providence / New York, NY (Madison Square Garden)
The Illini were originally scheduled to play Pittsburgh as part of the Coaches vs. Cancer in Madison Square Garden. After a change of plans, Illinois will take on Providence in the Jimmy V Classic in Madison Square Garden.
The Friars should pick up some solid wins this year. However, this should not be one of them. Providence will build around 6-7 forward/center Ryan Gomes (18.4 ppg) and 6-3 senior guard Abdul Mills (14.5 ppg in 01-02). Mills returns to the squad after sitting out last season with a hip injury. The Friars won 8 of their last 11 to end the season last year. Expect a scrappy bunch to make the trip from Rhode Island to the Big Apple.
Degree of Difficulty: 7 (Hopefully, Illinois won't be caught up in the glitz and glamour of playing in The World's Most Famous Arena. Hopefully, they won't be hanging out with all the rich and trendy people that live in New York City. Look for an Illinois victory, but expect them to have to work very hard for the win.)
December 11, 2003
Maryland-Eastern Shore / Champaign, IL (Assembly Hall)
The Assembly Hall welcomes home the Illinois road warriors for a game against Maryland-Eastern Shore. Playing their first game at home since the day before Thanksgiving will be a treat for the Illini. Don't look for a whole lot of competition from the Hawks. Illini faithful can expect some explosiveness from Hawks 5-11 guard Tee Trotter (20.5 ppg), but not much after that. Tee vs. Dee could light up the scoreboard.
Degree of Difficulty: 2 (The Illini will have been living out of their duffle bags for a while and will enjoy an exciting homecoming. The only way the Illini lose this one is if they live their game in the overhead compartments on the plane back from New York).
December 13, 2003
Memphis / Champaign, IL (Assembly Hall)
Slick John Calipari and his Memphis Tigers stroll into C-U, as the Illini will be playing their third game in six days. If they want to win the Big Ten Tournament, the Illini will have to win at least 3 games in 3 days, so this is good practice. Last year, the Tigers gave the Illini their first loss of the season. If things go as planned, revenge will be sweet for the Fighting Illini.
The Tigers expect to be exciting this year, featuring impressive athletes in the backcourt. Calipari hopes for 6-0 senior guard Antonio Burks to lead his squad. 6-7 sophomore forward Rodney Carney is Memphis' leading returning scorer (9.8 ppg).
Degree of Difficulty: 7 (Let's hope that the Illini can shake off their fatigue and have a nice dinner of home cooking. Get a big win here and it's time to focus on studying for finals and preparing for Mizzou. Stumble in this one and it makes finals week even harder.)
December 23, 2003
Missouri / St. Louis, MO (Savvis Center)
The annual Braggin' Rights game against Mizzou is always a good time and always a good game. This year will be no exception. Lon Kruger struggled in St. Louis and Bill Self owned the Gateway to the West. All of Illini Nation is excited to see how Bruce Weber will fare in The Lou.
Tigers coach Quin Snyder has his best collection of talent in Columbia this year. However, this isn't the squeaky cleanest team to ever lace up a pair of basketball shoes. Senior guard Rickey Paulding (17.7 ppg) and senior center Arthur Johnson are undoubtedly the stars of the team. The Tigers have an array of talent to help out Paulding and Johnson. If Snyder can keep off the court distractions from bothering his team, this could be a big year for Missouri fans.
Degree of Difficulty: 10 (All Illini faithful want for Christmas is a Border War win and to leave a lump of coal in the stockings of Tiger backers. This game will probably be back and forth all throughout, with the winner being determined in the last minute. All of this could change if any Mizzou players decide to go ride four wheelers at the university president's house.)
December 30, 2003
Illinois-Chicago / Chicago, IL (United Center)
Longtime Illini assistant and current UIC head coach Jimmy Collins hopes to have his Flames partying at the Big Dance once again this year. Horizon League Player of the Year candidate Cedric Banks (19.0 ppg) could cause problems for Illinois. Look for solid play at the point guard position from Martell Bailey (10 ppg). Collins' could put an unusual four-forward lineup on the court.
Degree of Difficulty: 6 (The Flames will be one of the best mid-major teams in the country in 2003-04. In-state schools always gear up to play the big state school and Collins would love nothing more than to beat the place that turned him down for the head coaching job when Lou Henson retired. The game is in Chicago, but not at the UIC Pavilion. Playing at the United Center is a definite plus in the Illini's favor.)
January 3, 2004
Illinois State / Champaign, IL (Assembly Hall)
First-year head coach Porter Moser will lead the Redbirds down Interstate 74 for Illinois' inaugural contest of 2004. ISU struggled last season and hopes to rebound with Porter as the head of the house. The backcourt tandem of 5-9 senior Vince Greene (12.3 ppg) and 6-2 junior Trey Guidry will carry the load for the Redbirds. Missouri transfer Najeeb Echols will improve the frontcourt when he is eligible, after the first semester.
Degree of Difficulty: 5 (Another in-state mid-major team could give the Illini a game for the first twenty minutes. However, the Illini should be able to put away the ‘Birds in the second half. Weber's familiarity with ISU's personnel from his days at SIU can only help the U of I. After this one, it is time to focus on the Big Ten opener against the Ohio State Buckeyes.)