Finally, there’s some clarity to who Illinois will play — and when — in the 2020-21 season with just a single open date remaining to round out the 27-game schedule. Beat writer Scott Richey breaks down five of the best matchups the eighth-ranked Illini will face:
Dec. 2. vs. No. 2 Baylor
This is the type of game Illinois fans have clamored for year after year. It also backs up what have basically been “anyone, anytime” statements from Illini coach Brad Underwood about putting together a tough schedule. The latter’s particularly true when you remember Illinois scooped up this chance to play in Indianapolis after Rutgers pulled out of the Jimmy V Classic. Beat the Bears — who open with No. 18 Arizona State next Wednesday and could play No. 3 Villanova on Thanksgiving — and the Illini could vault up the polls.
Dec. 8 at No. 9 Duke
Here’s where Illinois’ more veteran roster might come in handy. This is a typical Duke team boasting a rotation that will be chock full of freshmen. Talented freshmen like Jalen Johnson and Mark Williams, but first-year players nonetheless in an unusual season. Playing the Blue Devils in just the second full week of the season before their slew of five-star freshmen truly settle in could be advantageous.
Jan. 23 at No. 13 Michigan State
Illinois is just 2-8 in East Lansing, Mich., in the last decade, and the last three trips have seen the Illini lose by a combined 65 points. Hitting the road against arguably the Big Ten’s most consistent winner, even if Tom Izzo is without veteran stalwarts Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman Sr., and taking one from the Spartans on their home court could prove this Illini team is a legit Big Ten title contender.
Jan. 29 vs. No. 5 Iowa
The only problem about this game is the fact it’s Illinois’ only game against Iowa this season. The only game for Da’Monte Williams and Connor McCaffery to, uh, exchange pleasantries after they got so close last season. Neither team is fond of the other. That’s putting it mildly, too. Conference rivals — and Iowa has jumped to the top of that list for Illinois — should play more than once in a season. Have to think a fired-up Fran McCaffery would agree with that. Too bad he won’t get to see the Orange Krush in person, either.
Feb. 27 at No. 7 Wisconsin
Last season’s win in Madison, Wis., ended an eight-game losing streak for Illinois on Wisconsin’s home court. Not to mention a 15-game losing streak in general against the Badgers. Last year’s Illini built their reputation with key road wins, including their one-point victory at the Kohl Center. This matchup on the final Saturday in February could have serious Big Ten title implications. For both teams.
Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).