Difficult nonconference schedule will test Illinois before Big Ten season gets started

By Jason Grodsky

The Illinois basketball team will need to find its identity fast – real fast.

The Illini hoopsters will have had only two exhibition warm-up games before they begin their 2007-08 regular season schedule, a schedule that isn’t filled with a lot of cupcakes.

It won’t be long into their season that the Illini will find themselves tested. After the season opener against Northeastern on Sunday, the Illini will travel off the mainland to the islands of Hawaii for a stretch of games against some of the nation’s best teams.

Illinois will allow itself to get accustomed to the drastic time change in Hawaii with a game against the University of Hawaii before playing in one of the country’s toughest tournaments – the Maui Invitational.

“It’s going to be difficult,” head coach Bruce Weber said. “You have all those games in that mix in Hawaii and guys aren’t going to be able to catch up to speed in practice during that stretch.”

This year’s field in the Maui Invitational will once again feature some of the nation’s best teams. Illinois will open the Maui Invite against Arizona State and could potentially play Duke and Marquette, which are ranked in the Associated Press’ Top 25.

When the Illini return home they won’t have much time to rest before squaring off against two more national powerhouses.

Illinois will travel to Maryland for the Big Ten/ACC Challenge in hopes of avenging last year’s loss to the Terrapins and will play No. 17 Arizona at the United Center in Chicago for the Lexus “December to Remember” Classic.

The team will then have its annual meeting with Missouri in St. Louis for the Busch Braggin’ Rights game before it gets into its 18-game Big Ten schedule.

Whether the Illini will rise to the challenge of a tough nonconference schedule or stumble out of the gates, they should be battle tested when the Big Ten season begins.

“Once the season gets established, we’ll have to wait a couple of weeks before we get some practice time in and possibly figure out what guys will be able to help us because of all the games,” Weber said.