CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Brad Underwood continues to make a consistent pledge to Illinois basketball fans.
If the Illini do not make the NCAA tournament in a given year, which after last season’s success is now seen as more of a future expectation than a hope, it won’t be because the program’s head coach didn’t put together a quality non-conference schedule.
Since taking the job in Champaign-Urbana, Underwood has been almost stubbornly preaching that his Illini program will feature more power programs and play one of the nation’s most competitive non-conference slates.
“There’s nothing worse than playing a bunch of patsies and getting a false sense of who you are,” Underwood said before embarking on the Grand Canyon-Arizona back-to-back road trip last November. “We’re definitely not going to do that.”
The 2020-21 schedule for the Illini will be no different. While the schedule hasn’t been announced, we already know several of the key highlighted pieces. Illinois already has a return game against Arizona in the State Farm Center that will follow the 90-69 loss to the Wildcats in Tucson on Nov. 10, 2019. The game against Arizona will be the first non-conference opponent not from a made-for-TV event (ACC/Big Ten Challenge, Gavitt Games etc.) from a recognized college basketball power program to visit the State Farm Center in 11 years (Bruce Weber’s Illini squad played the back end of a home-and-home versus Vanderbilt on Dec. 8, 2009).
|ILLINOIS MEN'S BASKETBALL KNOWN 2020-21 NON-CONFERENCE OPPONENTS|
vs. Arizona (return game from home-and-home contract)
vs. Florida in Emerald Coast Classic Tournament
vs. winner or loser of Iowa State-Oregon semifinal in Emerald Coast Classic Tournament
at TBD in Gavitt Tipoff Games event
at TBD in ACC/Big Ten Tournament event
vs. Missouri in Braggin' Rights Game in St. Louis
Illinois being able to participate in an exempt multiple-team events and several made-for-TV early-season matchups will also give the Illini an opportunity to raise its non-conference strength of schedule before embarking on the 20-game Big Ten Conference gauntlet. Illinois officially announced Tuesday their semifinal opponent in the Emerald Coast Classic basketball tournament in Niceville, Fla., will be Florida. The Illini and Gators haven’t played since a 2000 NCAA tournament second round matchup that saw Florida win 93-76 in Winston Salem, N.C. and marked the final game Lon Kruger would coach at Illinois. Illinois and Florida will be on the opposite bracket of a Iowa State-Oregon matchup in the four-team tournament. The Illini also are guaranteed to be a participant in the Gavitt Tipoff Games series against a Big East opponent to be determined later and could be a road game due to the Illini hosting Georgetown and DePaul in its last two appearances. Illinois is likely to go on the road in its ACC/Big Ten Challenge game after hosting Miami (Fla.) last season. Add in the annual Braggin’ Rights game against Missouri and Underwood guaranteeing Illinois will play at least 26 games against power programs and the possibility of 15 of those games being away from State Farm Center.
“I always look at them like opportunities," Underwood said of challenging non-conference games last December. "When you’re in the Big Ten, everybody in this conference is going to play a really, really hard schedule."
And this scheduling philosophy should come as no surprise to Illini fans as Underwood’s former boss and mentor believes in the idea of iron sharpening iron in the first few months of the season as well. Bob Huggins, who is entering his 14th season as head coach at West Virginia and has been a Division I head coach since 1984, traditionally plays a non-conference schedule that rivals most programs in the nation in terms of difficulty despite playing a 20-game round-robin league slate in the Big 12 Conference, one of the nation’s deepest and competitive conferences.
When West Virginia released its 2020-21 non-conference schedule in March, which includes a combined record of 137-119 this past season for its known opponents, Huggins was his usual blunt and honest self when addressing the early-season matchups.
“We just played the second-toughest schedule in the country and this schedule will be no different,” Huggins said in a release.
Without being in an exempt tournament last season, Illinois went searching for road challenges and quality mid-major programs to provide a good test before the league schedule began. However, mostly due to the stumbles of Arizona, Missouri and Miami (Fla.), the Illini were only able to generate a non-conference strength of schedule ranking of 125 of 353 Division 1 programs. This will not likely be a problem in Underwood’s fourth season at Illinois but the Illini also might be able to sell a power program schedule without actually facing the nation’s elite until conference play. Neither Arizona, Florida, Oregon, Iowa State and Missouri are currently in CBS analyst Gary Parish’s Top 25 And One rankings. Only two Big East teams are in those rankings (Villanova 3, Creighton 8). Therefore, Illinois is going to bank on the idea of playing power programs and having their ranking maintain at a stable level because of the competition they’ll be playing. Either way, Underwood’s continued pledge will make Illini fans less likely to wonder about the details of their team’s early-season opponents because it’ll probably be a name brand school.