CHAMPAIGN — Thankfully, Illinois and Purdue are scheduled to play twice during the regular season this year.

That’s a contrast from recent seasons between the two tradition-rich Big Ten men’s basketball programs with passionate fan bases separated by only 92 miles. Since Maryland and Rutgers joined the Big Ten prior to the 2014-15 season, Illinois and Purdue have only played two games against one another in two seasons. That means five seasons with just one meeting between the Illini and Boilermakers and 10 total games between the two foes, including an unplanned Big Ten tournament quarterfinal game in 2016.

Doesn’t seem exactly right, especially with Illinois playing Rutgers 11 times (another game in Piscataway, N.J., is on tap for Feb. 16) and Maryland 10 times (a trip to College Park, Md., is in store for the Illini late next week). But, hey, the Big Ten didn’t ask me.

With all that background, expect an electric atmosphere on Monday morning in Champaign. That’s right, Monday morning. In a smart move, college basketball will unleash a plethora of games on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, with Illinois and Purdue tipping off the slate.

While it may inconvenience some on a normal work day (take an early lunch or pop in headphones at work to listen to Brian Barnhart’s radio call), it doesn’t appear to affect those willing to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative COVID test from entering the 15,544-seat State Farm Center. A sellout is anticipated to watch two programs with Final Four aspirations.

And the best part? Illinois and Purdue are scheduled to meet again in less than a month, with an 8 p.m. Thursday night tip at raucous Mackey Arena set for Feb. 10. Get your popcorn ready.

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Kudos to the Big Ten football schedule makers. Seriously. For a league that has been known to botch a schedule unveiling (or two) in recent years, rearranging some games to present more marquee opportunities for the league is a smart move.

Much like getting a game at Penn State for a third straight season off the Illinois schedule and getting a game at Indiana back on the schedule for the first time since 2013. Having the Illini and Hoosiers play on Sept. 3 allows one team to get a Big Ten win right away. Which means quite more to programs with inconsistent records of success, like Illinois and Indiana have had for some time, than it does for established powers like Michigan and Ohio State.

My way-too-early projection for how Illinois will finish during Bielema’s second season: 6-6 and a bowl trip. Check back in December.

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Speaking of football, have to wonder who Tom Michael will hire as the next Eastern Illinois football coach.

In a surprise move, Adam Cushing departed Charleston this week to become the offensive line coach at Duke. The former longtime Northwestern offensive line coach under Pat Fitzgerald and the older brother of former Illini tight end Matt Cushing, Adam Cushing only went 3-26 in three seasons with the Panthers before joining new Duke coach Mike Elko’s staff.

But Michael, the former Illini sharp-shooting wing who played for Lou Henson in the early 1990s and later worked as an athletic administrator at Illinois before becoming the EIU athletic director in July 2014, is now tasked with finding Cushing’s replacement.

And working through a potentially awkward situation since Cushing hired a new offensive coordinator, Joe Davis, on Dec. 23 after firing his entire offensive staff from last season. The Davis hire came 10 days after Duke hired Elko on Dec. 13 and eight days after Cushing signed 16 players in the early recruiting period on Dec. 15, including Westville offensive lineman Bryce Burnett.

“I’m completely happy with everything that’s going on in our program,” Michael said on Jan. 3 during his in-person appearance on ‘SportsTalk,’ at the Esquire in downtown Champaign, giving no indication a week later he wouldn’t have a football coach. “We just need to win a couple more ballgames, but everything else is off the charts good.”

Whoever Michael hires in becoming EIU’s fourth football coach since longtime coach Bob Spoo retired after the 2011 season, he’ll inherit a roster that had 88 freshmen and sophomores this past fall. And take over a proud FCS program that has 16 playoff appearances since 1981 and a notable list of alumni, but has fallen on some hard times recently.

Matt Daniels is the sports editor at The News-Gazette. He can be reached at 217-373-7422 or at mdaniels@news-gazette.com.

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