Big Ten Non-Conference Schedule Analysis: Illinois Fighting Illini

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on October 23rd, 2012

The Big Ten microsite will be analyzing the non-conference schedules for all of the Big Ten teams in the coming weeks. Today, we continue with the Northwestern Wildcats. Check out their full schedule here.

Where we left off: Bruce Weber’s Illini set the expectations very high after winning the first 10 games of the non-conference schedule during the 2011-12 campaign. Illinois handled Maryland comfortably on the road (71-62) and beat a ranked Gonzaga team (#18 at the time), 82-75 in Champaign. But the confidence from those wins quickly deteriorated after the Illini got run over by UNLV in Chicago (64 – 48) and lost to Missouri in the annual Braggin’ Rights game, 78-74. Overall, their 11-2 record during the non-conference season indicated to Illini fans that they might enjoy a successful season before the wheels fell off during the final 14 games of the season where the team sputtered to a miserable 2-12 record. The schedule appears to be tougher this season especially for a team that needs to adjust to a new offensive system under head coach John Groce and deal with the departure of their big man Meyers Leonard to the NBA.

Can Brandon Paul and the Illini win more than eight games in the non-conference season?

Major Tournaments: The timing couldn’t be worse for the Illini to play in arguably the most prestigious preseason tournament, the Maui Invitational. Illini fans envisioned a completely different team for this event when the field was announced over a year ago. First off, Bruce Weber was still expected to be coaching in Champaign. Few expected Meyers Leonard to stick around for a senior season, but he wasn’t viewed as a sure lock for the NBA after just two seasons either. Guard Crandall Head was supposed to play an integral role in his junior year rather than transferring out of the program after just one season. Regardless of the personnel changes on the team, the fans expected Illinois to fly to Maui as one of the top contenders. But the reality is that they might not even be the fourth-best team in the field this year. North Carolina, Marquette, Texas and Butler are most certainly better equipped than the Illini to win the title and the first matchup against USC is not a guaranteed win. If the Illini manage to muscle their way past the Trojans, they will then face the Longhorns as a heavy underdog. This tournament will test Groce’s ability to keep his team together under adversity. If Brandon Paul and company can compete against USC and/or even Texas, it should be considered a very positive early season sign for the Orange Krush and the Illini faithful.

Toughest Opponent: If the Illini get past USC in the first round in Maui, they will potentially face Texas (the Longhorns play host Chaminade) and maybe even North Carolina in the finals barring any other upsets. If that scenario plays out, North Carolina will certainly be the toughest opponent Illinois will face in the non-conference schedule. Based on the slate of other games, though, Missouri will be their toughest opponent. Last year, Missouri’s speed proved to be too much for the Illini guards and even though Groce hopes to push the tempo this season, his players might not yet be fully accustomed to the new system by mid-December. Junior guard Phil Pressey and redshirt senior forward Laurence Bowers will be a matchup nightmare for the Illini. Forwards Nnanna Egwu and Sam McClaurin can’t expect to hang with the versatile Bowers and Pressey is too quick to be kept out of the paint, inevitably resulting in foul trouble for the Illini bigs.

Most Important Game: Confidence is extremely important for a program that is rebuilding under a new coach. Picking up wins during the early part of the schedule will help young players like Tracy Abrams and Myke Henry gain confidence and continue to improve for tougher games down the stretch against the likes of Missouri or Gonzaga. Within that context, the Maui Invitational opening game against USC might be the most important game of the entire schedule. The Trojans are not necessarily contenders in the Pac-12, but they will challenge Illinois with a host of new talent (10 transfers enter the program). USC’s depth in the frontcourt could dominate Egwu and McLaurin in the paint, while Trojans’ lead guard Jio Fontan and forward Aaron Fuller are healthy again and will play a big role in the game. A loss in the opener at Maui could really discourage this team — assuming that they get past USC, they will need to at least hang with Texas for most of the next game.

Trap Game: Another game that the Illini are supposed to win might be a trap game – Norfolk State at home on December 11. Mark Few’s Gonzaga Bulldogs might hand it to the Illini in Spokane three days prior to the Norfolk State game, as GU is ranked in the Top 25 and returns a core of Elias Harris (13.1 PPG) and Kevin Pangos (13.6 PPG), who will challenge the Illini defensively. But once again, sticking with this team’s shaky confidence, it is very important for the Illini to rebound at home after what could be a tough loss on the road. The Illini should not sleep on a solid Norfolk State team that will pose match-up problems on the glass. Missouri head coach Frank Haith can attest to that fact after being upset by the Spartans in the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament last season.

Analysis: The first 12 games of the season will be thoroughly analyzed by Illini fans because they are eager to see the changes in the players under Groce’s direction. If the guards attack the basket consistently, get to the free throw line and stay competitive during the tough stretches, the fans will be satisfied with the new regime in place. Few folks expect them to pick up 10 or even 11 wins but eight non-conference wins is a reasonable expectation. They need to beat Georgia Tech and Norfolk State at home and hope to put up a fight against Missouri, Gonzaga and possibly Texas. The best case scenario might be nine or 10 wins for Illinois but fans will accept fewer as long as there are noticeable changes in the team’s overall intensity and energy on the court.

Deepak Jayanti (270 Posts)

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