Key games for Illini basketball nonconference

By Matt Gertsmeier, Illini hoops columnist


Head coach John Groce and Illinois had a rough go last season finishing 15-19. But, it’s a new year and it’s a time to be optimistic. That’s why I took the time to break down the nonconference games Illinois will be competing in this November and December.

The nonconference portion of this season should be a fun one to watch with some tough opponents. The Illini won’t have great TV exposure, but they will play in three NBA arenas before the conference season begins. Making predictions is somewhat tough this early on and with the lack of Vegas’ help with the spreads, but here is my take.

Illinois vs. Southeast Missouri State
Nov. 11
Champaign, Illinois
Illinois Head to Head: 2-0

Last year, Illinois lost its first official game of the season, which is why I am including this as a key game for 2016-2017. Sure, last season Illinois played its first four home games in Springfield, Illinois, and North Florida was a much tougher opponent than people anticipated, but losing the first game of the season is a rare sight for the Illini. It was the first time Illinois lost its home-opener since the 1998-1999 team lost to Wake Forest.

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It’s time to begin a new streak. Southeast Missouri State shouldn’t give Illinois any issues seeing that the Redhawks finished last year with a record of 5-24. This will be a completely different game than North Florida which finished 22-12 and nearly made the NCAA tournament, but that doesn’t mean the Illini should take it lightly.

Prediction: Illinois 84, Southeast Missouri State 52

Illinois vs. No. 20 West Virginia
Nov. 24
Brooklyn, New York
Illinois Head to Head: 3-1

Illinois was invited to play in this year’s NIT Season Tip-Off. The field consists of Florida State, Temple and West Virginia. The Illini play West Virginia in the first game of the four-team tournament. This will be Groce’s first tough test of the season as many preseason rankings have West Virginia in the top-25. The Mountaineers played a tough schedule last season in the stacked Big-12 and finished the year 26-9. They qualified for the NCAA tournament and lost to Stephen F. Austin in the first round. Some players to watch out for in this game will be junior guards Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles Jr. This is a game where I will be interested to see how Tracy Abrams and Jalen Coleman-Lands matchup against the Mountineers’ back-court. While it’s hard to imagine an Illini win, this will be a fun game to watch as it will most likely be nationally televised on ESPN2 and is being hosted at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York — home of the Brooklyn Nets.
Prediction: West Virginia 88, Illinois 72

Illinois vs. North Carolina State
Nov. 29
Champaign, Illinois
Illinois Head to Head: 3-0

In the 18th Big Ten-ACC Challenge, the Illini will host North Carolina State and try to do their share of contributing to the Big Ten’s win total. During last season’s challenge, Illinois lost by five to Notre Dame. At this point in the year, the Illini will have seven games under their belt. Whether they enter this game carrying a strong record or weak record, the Illini are due for a win. The last three years in the challenge Illinois has lost by single digits. In last year’s loss to the Fighting Irish, the Illini were led by the efforts of forward Malcolm Hill who finished the game with 19 points. I expect Hill to perform at that same level against the Wolfpack. Mix in the presence and skills of center Mike Thorne Jr., and I think the Illini have what it takes to pull off the upset and snap the three-year losing streak. Still, expect this to be a close game and battle until the end. The team is losing some players that played an important role last season — such as Anthony Barber and Caleb Martin. The Wolfpack do have a strong incoming freshman class, which includes the No. 7 best recruit in the class of 2016, Dennis Smith.
Prediction: Illinois 74, NC State 70

Illinois vs. Virginia Commonwealth
Dec. 3
Miami, Florida
Illinois Head to Head: 0-0

This is the first game in Illinois basketball program history against Virginia Commonwealth. The Rams are always a team to keep on your radar ever since their Final Four appearance in 2011. Since that season VCU hasn’t missed an NCAA Tournament. Even after the departure of former coach Shaka Smart, VCU managed a 25-11 season and lost to Oklahoma in the second round of the tournament under first-year head coach Will Wade. Much like the Illini, this VCU team is built with veterans — the Rams have six seniors on the roster. VCU will be returning three of last year’s top-six scorers. Much of this game will be determined by the upperclassmen. This could be a game where Illini look upon senior guard Jaylon Tate to step up depending on his team’s foul trouble. Last year, VCU averaged about 20-free throw attempts per game. This will also be an interesting game because both Illinois and VCU are leading the hunt for 2017 recruit Mayan Kiir. This early December game is also featured in the second annual Hoophall Miami Invitational hosted at American Airlines Arena — home of the Miami Heat. It’s a tough one to predict, but I think VCU has the early edge.
Prediction: VCU 80, Illinois 72

Illinois vs. Missouri
Dec. 21, 2016
St. Louis, Missouri
Illinois Head to Head: 26-15

The classic bragging rights game. Illinois has dominated this series against the Tigers and I don’t expect anything different this year. During Groce’s tenure the Illini have a record of 3-1 against Missouri. The last couple of seasons Missouri’s basketball program has struggled. The Tigers went 10-21 last year. Unfortunately for the Tigers, there are no signs of improvement. Missouri returns only two of their top five scorers from last year’s squad. The team only had one player averaging double figure points — Kevin Puryear averaged 11.5 points per game. The Tigers also aren’t adding an impressive recruiting class. Nonetheless, both Illinois and Missouri always seem to bring it when it comes to the bragging rights. I expect a close game and I expect to see a strong performance from redshirt sophomore forward Michael Finke. Last year against the Tigers, Finke’s play had a major impact on the outcome of the game putting up 16 points while shooting over 60 percent from the field.
Prediction: Illinois 63, Missouri 58

Matt is a junior in Business

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