Rounding out the schedule

Rounding out the schedule

CHAMPAIGN — Brad Underwood had three games to fill in Illinois' nonconference schedule when he was hired in mid-March. It was a challenge. The Illini were already locked into contracts with the Gavitt Tipoff Games, the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and the annual Braggin' Rights game against Missouri.

The Big Ten shifting its tournament up a week — to secure a vacancy at Madison Square Garden — meant playing a pair of conference games the first week of December. That further tightened available dates for the new Illinois staff to round out its schedule.

The result of that work was announced Thursday. Illinois will play nine nonconference games at home, two at neutral sites and two on the road (although the Illini will play UNLV at MGM Grand and not Thomas & Mack Center).

Underwood's general feeling about his first Illinois team's schedule?

"It's maybe not quite where we want it," he said. "I've said many times I like playing great people, and I want to play high level people. We'll work on that.

"You can only control so much. Scheduling is very, very difficult — very challenging. A lot of it is done years in ahead. We'll work on that in the future."

Underwood said Illinois' 2018-19 nonconference schedule is nearly complete. This coming season, though, will feature games against a dozen Division I teams with an average RPI of 196. That includes Longwood on the high end at No. 343, Wake Forest on the low end at No. 43 and Division III Augustana.

Underwood said he added the game against UNLV, which will be returned at State Farm Center next season, and the games against Austin Peay and Augustana.

"It's not just us," Underwood said. "It takes two to tango so to speak to want to play, and finding games is very, very challenging."

The Big Ten shifting its schedule to accommodate an earlier conference tournament made filling out the schedule more difficult. It will also be a challenge for the Illini in season with a roster that is half newcomers most of which are freshmen.

"That's something I haven't experienced," Underwood said of conference games in the middle of typical nonconference play. "You have to get guys minutes. I know we're going to play freshmen. Thsoe guys have to see the court."

Underwood's excitement for the 2017-18 season, meanwhile, hasn't waned.

"I think it's exciting for this team in the fact that we've got a lot of new players that are going to be in new roles and to see how that plays out," he said. "Getting these guys dialed in as quick as possible is of the upmost importance."