Illinois State will face at least four 2019 NCAA Tournament teams in its non-conference schedule for the 2019-20 season, challenging itself to prove to the committee it deserves respect.
When the Redbirds were on the bubble in 2017, their non-conference schedule didn’t do them any favors as they found themselves on the outside looking in during March. Although they’re not predicted to make the tournament this season, preseason paper evaluations are meaningless in the face of competition. Having a schedule with games like this is a must for a program like Illinois State if it wants a shot at an at-large bid.
“I’m excited about our non-conference schedule,” said Illinois State head coach Dan Muller in a press release. “It is challenging and will prepare us for the tough Missouri Valley Conference season. There is a great mix of home, road, and neutral site games against quality opponents, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how our team handles these opportunities. I can’t wait to see everyone fill up Redbird Arena with the exciting changes to the facility.”
The Redbirds will open the season with Belmont, a team that won a game in the First Four of the Big Dance last year, on Nov. 6 at home, an excellent opportunity for them to secure a victory over one of the premier mid-major programs to kick off the campaign.
Eleven days later, UCF comes to Normal to take on the Redbirds. The Knights are coming off their return to the NCAA Tournament since 2005 and their first-ever March Madness win, but most of their talent has moved on. This could easily be a rebuilding year for UCF, but there’s a chance its momentum from last season can keep it from the AAC basement. If it can do that, Illinois State could have a shot at a Q2 win here.
The meat of Illinois State’s non-conference docket will come from the Paradise Jam Tournament from Nov. 22-25 at the Sports and Fitness Center in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. The Redbirds are guaranteed three games regardless of results, with the first set as a meeting with Cincinnati. The Bearcats had a fantastic regular season in the previous campaign but faltered in the NCAA Tournament. Some of its talent is gone, and Mick Cronin left in the offseason to take the UCLA job. Jarron Cumberland and some more of last season’s contributors are back, though, and the Redbirds can count on this game providing a Q2 win at worst, possibly even a Q1 victory.
In its second game of the event one day later, Illinois State will get Bowling Green or Western Kentucky, depending upon game results. The Falcons are predicted to be one of the best teams in the MAC this season, bringing back two double-digit scorers in Justin Turner and Dylan Frye. The Hilltoppers are the odds-on favorite to take the Conference USA crown, with Charles Bassey and a whole host of other talented scorers filling out the roster. Either way, Illinois State will get a tough opponent that would move the needle if the committee were to consider its resume in March.
Fordham, Grand Canyon, Nevada and Valparaiso round out the rest of the tournament’s field. The Redbirds will battle one of them in its third game Nov. 25.
The Redbirds will play their first true road game of the campaign Dec. 3 at TCU, an NIT team a season ago. The Horned Frogs bring back senior Desmond Bane as its only returning upperclassman, and with an otherwise inexperienced lineup, they are liable to take a step back. But beating any major-league opponent in the non-conference is valuable for the Illinois States of the world, particularly on the road.
In total, this docket likely won’t be so tough that it catapults Illinois State into the tournament if it finds itself near the cutline. However, it could be good enough to not tank the team, and that’s a victory considering what happened a few years ago.