By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Its first game doesn't tip off until November, but the picture of the 2014-'15 Illinois basketball team became clear this week.
Or, at least, the picture of the Fighting Illini's schedule did.
On Thursday, the Big Ten unveiled this coming hoops season's conference slate, filling in the blanks behind the Illini's previously released nonconference games. With the full array of games now available for public consumption, I chewed on it overnight and had a few thoughts.
Road warriors – and home sleepers
Before the Big Ten season even begins at Michigan on Dec. 30, Illinois will have already traveled a whopping 8,338 miles all over the map with games in Las Vegas (against Indiana State and Baylor or Memphis), Miami (against Miami), New York (against Villanova), Chicago (against Oregon) and St. Louis (against Missouri).
That schedule should present coach John Groce's squad with opportunities to test its mettle both early and often, and it offers travel-minded Illini fans a chance to take some truly great road trips. But what does it offer the homebodies down in Champaign?
With all of the Illini's marquee nonconference games on the road, the pre-Big Ten foes at State Farm Center are Georgia Southern, Coppin State, Austin Peay, Brown, American, Hampton and Kennesaw State.
Yee haw. That's Snoozville for fans paying for a season ticket, and Illinois really needs to find a way to spruce up its nonconference home schedule next year – and in years beyond.
Once the Big Ten season does roll around, the conference's schedule makers have done the Illini no favors by sending what will already be a road-weary team away from home for four of its first five league games.
Traveling to Michigan and Ohio State back-to-back before hosting Maryland, and then hitting the road again for games at Nebraska and Northwestern is far from the easiest way to open the conference season.
And honestly, no Big Ten team should have to play four of its first five league games away from home. Thumbs down to the conference for making the Illini do it.
The good (and bad) news
On the bright side for the Illini, after hitting the road for four of their first five Big Ten games, they play four of their next five at the State Farm Center. All of the contests also are winnable with Indiana, Purdue, Penn State and Rutgers sandwiching their visits around an Illini trip to Minnesota.
After that, however, things get hairy quickly again for Illinois as the next five games all come against expected conference heavyweights in Michigan State (road), Michigan (home), Wisconsin (road), Michigan State again (home) and Iowa (road).
Perhaps the biggest plus of the Big Ten season for the Illini is that they only have to face what I consider to be the league's two best teams – Wisconsin and Ohio State – once each. Unfortunately, both of those games come on the road.
Another late lift?
During the 2012-'13 season, Groce's struggling Illini squad made a mad dash to the NCAA Tournament by winning six of its final nine Big Ten games.
During the 2013-'14 season, Groce's struggling Illini squad made a mad dash to the NCAA Tournament bubble by winning five of its final eight Big Ten games.
The hope for Illinois is that with a deep roster and a slew of talented returnees, it will no longer be a struggling squad in Groce's third season. However, if Illinois does have to make a dash to the NCAA Tournament, ending the season with games against Northwestern (home), Nebraska (home) and Purdue (road) could provide a smooth track toward the Big Ten finish line.
Earlier this week, a friend asked where I predicted the Illini to finish in the Big Ten this season. At the time, I said anywhere from third to sixth, but now that the conference schedule has been released, I feel like I need to tweak that projection to anywhere from fourth to seventh.
With the return of veteran starters Rayvonte Rice, Nnanna Egwu and Tracy Abrams, the expected progression of sophomores Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill, plus the addition of transfers Aaron Cosby and Ahmad Starks and freshman Leron Black, I still believe that Illinois arguably has top-three talent in the conference. I'm just not sure they have the favorable schedule to match.
Regardless, it will still be a lot of fun to find out once the season begins.
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