Illinois hasn’t danced since 2013, but third-year head coach Brad Underwood has plans, and the means, to have his team playing in March in 2020.
His star freshman point guard from a season ago, Ayo Dosunmu, deferred his professional career another year to stay in Champaign to serve as Underwood’s superstar sophomore point guard this season. Giorgi Bezhanishvili put Georgia on the map in his freshman campaign and is back for another ride, plus a litany of other returning contributors and four-star center Kofi Cockburn out of Oak Hill Academy.
For as positive as it looks on paper, Illinois will need to actually win some games in the early portion of the season to find itself in the postseason. The team has scheduled a few key opportunities for eye-catching wins before Big Ten play begins, and it starts Nov. 10 with a date in Tucson with Arizona, the opening half of the Illini’s first home-and-home with a power-five program in 10 years.
The two schools have a tangled history with one another, having played 14 times despite sitting more than 1,300 miles apart, with the Wildcats holding an 8-6 advantage. But the real fire stems from the two NCAA Tournament matchups these teams had in the 2000s. In 2001, Arizona edged Illinois, 87-81, in the Elite Eight en route to a National Championship Game appearance. The Illini got revenge four years later with an epic comeback against the Wildcats in a 90-89 overtime thriller to preserve their perfect record and earn a trip to the Final Four. Ironically, Illinois would later face the same fate as 2001 Arizona, losing in the final to a Tobacco Road opponent.
Almost a month later, Illinois will play its next major-conference foe, hosting Miami (FL) on Dec. 2 as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. The Hurricanes were poor last season, but with the return of Chris Lykes and plenty of freshmen and transfers who can help the star point guard with scoring, Miami should be back to its normal level under head coach Jim Larranaga. This will be an excellent chance for Illinois to show the committee it deserves inclusion in the 2020 Dance.
As is tradition, the Illini will battle Missouri at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis as the border war adds another chapter to its story. Braggin’ Rights has been played 49 times since 1932, with Illinois leading the Tigers, 32-17. The two have tipped off every December since 1983, opting for the neutral site at the start of the 1980s. Missouri ended Illinois’s five-game winning streak in the series last year with a 79-63 triumph.
Illinois will also welcome Old Dominion to Champaign on Dec. 14. The Monarchs won the C-USA Tournament in 2019 and were a No. 14 seed in the NCAA Tournament, falling to Purdue 61-48 in the first round. The only other game the Illini will play away from home in the non-conference is at Grand Canyon on Nov. 8, a few days before the team is expected in Tucson.