CHAMPAIGN — Illinois mostly cruised through the first four games of what will be a five-game homestand. Hawaii put a bit of a scare in Brad Underwood’s Illini in the first game before losing by 13, but The Citadel didn’t two days later.
Hampton and Division II Lindenwood certainly didn’t either. Those two lost by a combined 101 points as Illinois hit the century mark in back-to-back games.
The level of play and opponent hits a different level Monday when Illinois (6-1) hosts Miami (4-3) at 6 p.m. in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. That starts a run of three straight games against power six teams with the Illini’s Big Ten opener Saturday at No. 5 Maryland. Then Michigan, which should jump into the Associated Press Top 25 and might wind up at No. 1, coming to State Farm Center on Dec. 11.
That three-game stretch is an opportunity for Illinois. An opportunity to snag a marquee win — or two or three. The Illini know it.
Junior guard Trent Frazier called Monday’s matchup with Miami the Illini’s “biggest game in a while.” Their last against a high major opponent came Nov. 10 at a ranked Arizona — a 21-point loss.
Miami doesn’t have the record or the ranking of the Wildcats, but that doesn’t change the importance of Monday’s game. Particularly since it’s at home, which is a first in the Brad Underwood era in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. The Illini lost two years ago at Wake Forest and last season at Notre Dame less than a week after returning from the Maui Invitational.
“We’ve been talking about it as a team how important these three games are for us,” Frazier said about the Miami-Maryland-Michigan stretch. “Winning these three games right here could make some noise for Illinois basketball. This is obviously a big opportunity for this team, and we’ve got to take this serious and show the nation what we’re about.”
Giorgi Bezhanishvili has taken a fairly consistent approach since he arrived at Illinois when it comes to discussing what’s to come on the Illini schedule. But even the sophomore forward acknowledged what some positive results in the next week would mean for the team.
“We said before the season we’re trying to win every single game,” Bezhanishvili said. “We approach every single game the same. Those three games will be huge for us. Every game is huge for us, but those three games will obviously teach us some things.”
Underwood probably appreciates Bezhanishvili’s approach. The Illinois coach’s full attention is on Miami — especially considering the idea forward Keith Stone might make his debut for the Hurricanes Monday coming off ACL surgery and rehab.
“I always look at them as opportunities,” Underwood said about the games against other high major teams. “When you’re in the Big Ten, everybody in this conference is going to play a really, really hard schedule. … You try not to make too much out of it. We have two early games, obviously, coming up in the Big Ten play, but right now all of our focus has been pretty singular in terms of getting ready for Miami.”
Underwood’s a big fan of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. That those games are among the last scheduled for the season, he said, adds a bit of intrigue to the matchups.
“I think we all take great pride in it — the Big Ten and ACC — in thinking we have the best conferences year in and year out,” Underwood said. “It’s a heck of a battle, a heck of a challenge. … It’s a week long of the Big Ten’s ability and ACC’s ability to showcase our programs. We get to kick that off on Monday night at 6 o’clock.”
An Illini win — at least should they get one Monday — doubles as a Big Ten win.
“Obviously when you go against a different conference that’s our level we always try and prove, ‘Oh, we’re in the Big Ten Conference. We’re the tougher teams, tougher conference,’” Bezhanishvili said. “Obviously it will be good not only for us, but the Big Ten, to win that game.”