United Center game to feature Big Ten foe

United Center game to feature Big Ten foe

CHAMPAIGN — Illinois wants to maintain a presence in Chicago.

That's why the Illini will continue to look for football opportunities after fulfilling their deal for two more football games at Soldier Field, with this season's game against South Florida included in that number. And it's why they'll continue to play a men's basketball game each season at the United Center.

Illinois will return to the United Center during the 2018-19 season. Who the Illini will play, though, might drum up more interest since they'll play a Big Ten opponent in Chicago thanks to the expanded 20-game Big Ten schedule set to start with the upcoming season."Having a presence in Chicago is important," Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman said on Wednesday. "We've had a presence in Chicago for a lot of years. The United Center has been a big part of that tradition for a long time.

"Excited, I think, about what that can mean for that game. That game had become a challenge for us from a scheduling standpoint. It was difficult to get a quality opponent — especially given the return obligations."

Illinois' Chicago games, which have happened for 24 straight seasons, have played out to dwindling interest the past few years. A combination of opponent — Oregon in 2014 is the only high major team in the last five years — and Illinois' struggles have hurt at the gate.

Just 5,151 fans were on hand for an 83-79 win against Illinois-Chicago in 2015. Dayton had perhaps the best crowd in a 2016 doubleheader that saw the Flyers face Northwestern before Illinois took on BYU. And last season's game was a disappointment in a 74-69 Illini loss that drew just 5,695 fans to the 20,917-seat arena.

Who the Illini will play in Chicago this coming season is still to be determined. The Big Ten won't release its basketball schedule until later this summer. What is known, however, are the Big Ten teams Illinois has home games with in 2018-19.

Whitman was fairly certain it wouldn't be Northwestern, although the Wildcats aren't entirely eliminated from the conversation. That leaves Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin (home and away series in 2018-19) and Michigan, Michigan State and Rutgers (home games only) as options.

"It will be that opening segment of the Big Ten schedule in December," Whitman said about when the game would take place, although a firm date has not been decided. The Big Ten added two games in early December for the 2017-18 season to handle a schedule shortened by a week to play its conference tournament in New York City. That change remains with the conference going to a 20-game slate.

"On the flip side of that it will allow us to bring another nonconference game back here to State Farm Center," Whitman continued. "We think it's a win-win all around. To be clear, we're not taking a existing Big Ten game away from Champaign. We're taking the new Big Ten game and moving it to Chicago."

Whether Illinois continues to play a Big Ten opponent in Chicago beyond the 2018-19 season will depend on how successful this first venture is this winter.

"I anticipate people will like it," Whitman said. "I think we'll get a nice turnout. We'll have a great, traditional rival in the building, and hopefully people will come out in nice numbers. We'll give it a shot this year and see how it works and then make some decisions about going forward."