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.
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.