We already knew a good portion of the Illini's non-conference schedule for the upcoming 2015-16 basketball season, but the school announced the entire slate Wednesday afternoon.
In addition to already-announced games that will be played in Springfield and a big Big Ten/ACC Challenge game against Notre Dame — the first game to be played in a renovated State Farm Center — Illinois unveiled its complete non-conference schedule, and it's not terribly heavy on games to get overly excited about.
Highlights include that game against Notre Dame and a road trip to Providence as part of the first Gavitt Tipoff Games, and the near-Christmas Braggin' Rights game against Mizzou is always mighty entertaining. Plus, the Illini will participate in the Emerald Coast Classic, going up UAB and either Virginia Tech or Iowa State.
"We have a challenging non-conference schedule ahead of us this year," Illinois head coach John Groce said in the announcement. "A number of our opponents are coming off NCAA Tournament seasons and are teams that we feel will be contenders in their respective leagues. So we will be tested against great competition, along with an unusual amount of November travel due to the renovations of our arena. The experiences gained during non-conference play should have us prepared for an extremely competitive Big Ten race."
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The upcoming season figures to be an important one for Groce, who after an NCAA tournament appearance in his first season has gone without one in each of the last two seasons. Last season finished with a particular thud, as Illinois was blown out in its final two games of the season against Michigan and Alabama.
Here's an opponent-by-opponent look at Illinois' non-conference schedule.
Nov. 8: vs. Illinois-Springfield (exhibition in Springfield)
The Illini's lone exhibition game pits them against the University of Illinois branch in Springfield. This game will be played in Springfield. Who has the home-court advantage?
Nov. 13: vs. North Florida (in Springfield)
The Ospreys landed in their first-ever NCAA tournament last season as A-Sun champs, though they were bounced after a loss in the First Four. It'll be the first meeting between these two programs.
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Nov. 15: vs. North Dakota State (in Springfield)
The Bison were also in last season's Big Dance, the second straight tourney appearance for NDSU as the back-to-back Summit League champion. The Bison actually have three straight 20-win seasons and have an NCAA tournament win under their belt from 2014. Illinois has seen NDSU twice in school history. Both games were big wins for the Illini in 1975 and 1981.
Nov. 18: at Providence (Gavitt Tipoff Games)
The inaugural Gavitt Tipoff Games pits Big Ten schools against Big East schools, and this matchup in Providence will be Illinois' first-ever trip there. These two programs have met twice, in 1965 and 2003, both times in New York City and both times with the Friars capturing victories. Providence has appeared in two consecutive NCAA tournaments, failing to make it out of the Round of 64 in either. But that shouldn't diminish the Friars 45 combined wins in the past two seasons.
Nov. 21: vs. Chattanooga (in Springfield)
This matchup ought to bring back some painful memories for Illini fans, as it was the 14th-seeded Mocs who knocked the sixth-seeded Illini out of the 1997 NCAA tournament. Yes, that's 18 years ago, but some folks don't drop a grudge. Chattanooga's only been to the tourney twice since, making first-round exits in 2005 and 2009. Last season, though, was the first 20-win campaign for the Mocs since 2005. The Illini better watch out, lest they relive the 75-63 game in Charlotte way back in March of 1997.
Nov. 23: vs. Chicago State (in Springfield)
The Illini have won all 11 meetings against the Cougars since the mid-80s, though this game will have the distinction of being the first between the two schools to be played outside of Champaign. Illinois shouldn't worry too much, though, as Chicago State won just eight games last season.
Nov. 27/28: Emerald Coast Classic, Niceville, Fla.
Thanksgiving weekend was good to Illinois last season, when it scored an impressive non-conference win over Baylor in Las Vegas. This time around, the setting isn't as high-profile, as the scene shifts to the nicely named Niceville, Fla. The opponents, though, are still good. UAB will be Illinois' first, and the Blazers gained plenty of fame for knocking off Iowa State in the Round of 64 in last season's Big Dance. The Blazers won 20 games and were the Conference USA tournament champs. Then the Illini will get one of two opponents in the second game, either those Iowa State Cyclones or the Virginia Tech Hokies. Fred Hoiberg now works in the Land of Lincoln, but Iowa State has won at least 20 games four seasons in a row with four straight tourney appearances. The Hokies have been to just two NCAA tournaments since 1986.
Dec. 2: vs. Notre Dame (Big Ten/ACC Challenge)
The highlight of the non-conference slate for many reasons, all Illini fans should have this one circled on the calendar. Illinois holds a 27-13 all-time series edge, though the teams haven't met since the 2003 NCAA tournament, when the Irish eliminated the Illini with an eight-point win in the Round of 32. This will actually be the first meeting between the two in Champaign since 1963, and it will also be the first game played in the completely renovated State Farm Center. The Irish are coming off one of their best seasons ever. They won the ACC Tournament and nearly ended Kentucky's perfect season in a thrilling loss in the Elite Eight.
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Dec. 5: vs. Western Carolina
The Western Carolina Catamounts have visited Champaign twice before and lost by a combined 31 points in 2007 and 2012. They won just 15 games last season and have just one NCAA tournament appearance (1996).
Dec. 9: vs. Yale
The break between meetings with Yale will be a little shorter than the last for Illinois. The 2010 was the second all-time matchup between the two, coming just 61 years after the first. Both were Illini wins. The Bulldogs did have a 20-win campaign last season for the first time since 2002, but you have to go back to 1962 for their last NCAA tournament appearance.
Dec. 12: vs. UIC (United Center)
This will be the fifth game between the Illini and Flames at the United Center since 2003. All time, Illinois holds a 13-2 edge in this series, but UIC has gotten one recently, winning at the UC in 2010. The Flames have a new head coach in former Tom Crean assistant Steve McClain after winning 43 games in five seasons under former Wisconsin Badger Howard Moore.
Dec. 19: vs. South Dakota
In 1971, the Illini defeated the visiting South Dakota Coyotes by 40 in Champaign, something Groce would like to replicate in the programs' second all-time meeting.
Dec. 23: vs. Missouri (St. Louis)
The non-conference season ends with the annual Braggin' Rights game in St. Louis. These are always extremely entertaining matchups regardless of how good either side is. Last season, neither made the NCAA tournament, but Rayvonte Rice's buzzer-beater was arguably the play of the season for Illinois. The Illini have a 24-16 edge over the Tigers all time. Mizzou head coach Kim Anderson is entering his second season after winning just nine games in his first.