With upcoming schedule nearly complete, Illini's path becoming clearer


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CHAMPAIGN — The schedule Illinois basketball faced last year? The one with the trip to Hawaii to face three high-level teams? With challenging nonconference games against Georgetown and Notre Dame? The one that was the 13th toughest in the nation, per KenPom, when 20 Big Ten games were added?

Brad Underwood's complete roster overhaul didn't quite mesh with the level of opponent Illini would face on a nightly basis. They struggled to a 12-21 record trying to tackle that slate.

That type of schedule, though, would have set up well for the 2019-20 team. Win enough of those games and it's hello NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013.

That's the goal — clearly — and Illinois' path back to March Madness has somewhat come into shape. The Big Ten opponents are set. Five nonconference games have been reported.

So what would make a fitting second half to that nonconference slate? What would put an Illinois team with NCAA tournament aspirations in the best possible position to snap a six-year March Madness drought?

The "best" schedule, of course, stretches the bounds of reality. Illinois' trip to Arizona will probably stand as the lone power six game not dictated by the ACC/Big Ten Challenge (Miami is coming to State Farm Center on Dec. 2) or the yearly Braggin' Rights slugfest with Missouri. So cherry picking elite teams is out of the question even if the concept of getting games with the likes of Kansas, Duke, etc., would ignite the fan base.

(As an aside, Kansas already released its full nonconference schedule. The Illini aren't on it. Maybe next year).

Another high-major opponent then probably isn't in the cards with Arizona, Miami and Missouri already on the books. That means those last five or six nonconference games — let's say six for argument's and symmetry's sake — could come via three different avenues.

Indulge this hypothetical, while we all wait for Illinois' official schedule release later this summer:

Filler or killer?

Apologies to any teams that fall under this designation, but sometimes the truth hurts. Even if Underwood maintains his desire to play as tough a schedule as a possible, the realities of schedule making mean some of those teams ranked 300-plus are needed to fill it out. Just try and find the best of the bunch — like Stephen F. Austin and North Carolina A&T.

Last season was a backslide for the Lumberjacks, who went 14-16 and tied for ninth in the Southland. Kevon Harris' return is big for SFA, and maybe Underwood does his successor a solid by scheduling a game. North Carolina A&T, meanwhile, went 19-13 and finished second in the MEAC. Forget for a moment those 19 wins came against one of the softest schedules in the country. The Aggies will compete.

Midwest ties

Illinois is already venturing into Conference USA territory with a game against league champs Old Dominion. A couple more opponents from that mid-major level with a nod to geography — say Western Kentucky and Saint Louis — would dovetail nicely with the Illini's postseason aspirations.

Western Kentucky won 20 games a year ago and then got great news this spring when former five-star center Charles Bassey — imagine his matchup with Kofi Cockburn — pulled his name from the NBA draft. Don't count out Rick Stansbury's Hilltoppers as an NCAA tournament team next March.

That's where Saint Louis found itself this past season after winning the Atlantic 10 tournament. The 23-win Billikens might have to replace several key contributors and are faced with replacing multiple starters but do return key juniors Jordan Goodwin (sound familiar, Illinois fans?) and Hasahn French.

Longer shots

Just because a team's not in one of the power six conferences doesn't mean there isn't value in pursuing game. So a potential Top 25 team from the Mountain West (Utah State) and a regular in the NCAA tournament from the American (Cincinnati) would certainly toughen up Illinois' schedule. Even if its in a two-year deal like the Illini struck with UNLV.

Utah State set the groundwork for a Top 25 season last year by winning 28 games and reaching the NCAA tournament. With Sam Merrill and Neemias Queta returning, the Aggies are the runaway favorites in the Mountain West.

Cincinnati is getting used to life without Mick Cronin after he left for UCLA following 13 seasons with the Bearcats. But new coach John Brannen has been to C-U before (with Northern Kentucky in 2016, plus he beat the Illini in the 2014 NIT as Alabama's interim coach) and has legit scorers to build around in cousins Jarron Cumberland and Oakland grad transfer Jaevin Cumberland.

Scott Richey covers college basketball for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at 217-351-5605, by email at srichey@news-gazette.com and on Twitter@srrichey.

College/Prep Sports Reporter

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).