Illinois basketball team to play only 6 nonconference home games

John Supinie

Coach Bruce Weber and the Illinois basketball team better pack their bags. Illini fans won't see them at Assembly Hall much before the start of Big Ten Conference play.

In a schedule released Tuesday, the Illini play only six non-conference home games, compared to nine last season. Illinois' appearance in the Maui Invitational and the Big Ten's decision to play an 18-game schedule, plus scheduled neutral court dates with Arizona in Chicago and Missouri in St. Louis, trimmed the number of home-court dates.

"All that kind of adds up,'' Weber said. "It gives it a little bit different look. You don't have quite the home-court advantage that you had last year. It's a challenging schedule. It will be a pretty high RPI schedule, not only the nonconference part but the Big Ten schedule as well. We're playing the top five or six teams twice apiece. Even that makes it more difficult.''

The six home non-conference games are the fewest since Illinois played five in the 2003-04 season.

Complicating matters for Illini fans who don't have cable access to the Big Ten Network, the league's cable channel will broadcast 10 of Illinois' conference games. Illinois may also be shown on BTN six to eight more games in non-conference play, although the television contracts for non-conference play haven't been announced.

Illinois lost two of its top three scorers to graduation from last year's team that finished 23-12 overall. Illinois does return three starters, but they all might need to rebuild their confidence after a tough finish last season.

With six incoming freshmen and a junior-college transfer, the Illini must blend a mixture of veterans and newcomers. Three games in the Maui tournament, the ACC-Big Ten Challenge game at Maryland the following week and the date with Arizona in early December force the Illini to learn on the fly.

Illinois also plays Hawaii in Honolulu three days before the Maui event begins. The Hawaii game doesn't count against the maximum of 28 regular-season games allowed. The Maui event is an exempt event, meaning all three games count for one game in Illinois' total.

"I think it's a pretty tough schedule, especially early,'' Weber said. "Some of it, we didn't have a choice. Maui was booked years before I got here. The Hawaii game is a free game (toward the NCAA total). Any time you play off the mainland, you get a free game.

"You have no choice with the Maryland game. Arizona is a great game in Chicago for us. That part of the schedule is challenging. We'll find out a lot about the kids and the team early.''

The Big Ten moved to an 18-game schedule -- home and away dates with eight teams, single dates with the other two league opponents -- after using a 16-game regular-season format since the adoption of the conference tournament in the 1997-98 season.

In conference play, the Illini play single dates with Northwestern (at Assembly Hall only) and Iowa (on the road).

John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.

Dates to remember

Here are five games that should be circled in orange and blue.

Nov. 20, Maui Invitational. Let's assume the Illini defeat Arizona State in the first round and get a semifinal date with Duke. The Illini are 2-4 all-time against Coach K, including three straight losses.

Dec. 8, Arizona, United Center, Chicago. The last time these two teams played here, Lucas Johnson had 'em in a headlock.

Jan. 3, Ohio State, Assembly Hall. With Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr. already in the NBA, this time it might be a fair game.

Feb. 7, Indiana, Assembly Hall. After first facing former Illini recruit Eric Gordon and Indiana on CBS in January, Illlini fans get to welcome him to the land of orange and blue.

March 4/5/6, Michigan State, Assembly Hall. The league's two most successful programs over the last decade meet in the season's final week.

Illinois men's basketball schedule

(Home games in caps)

Nov. 5 QUINCY (exhibition), TBA

Nov. 7 (tentative) KENTUCKY WESLEYAN (exhibition), TBA

Nov. 11 NORTHEASTERN, TBA

Nov. 16, at Hawaii, TBA

Nov. 19-21 Maui Invitational, Lahaina, Hawaii

Nov. 19 vs. Arizona State, 10:30 p.m., ESPN2

Nov. 20 vs. Duke/Princeton, TBA

Nov. 21 TBA

Nov. 28 at Maryland (ACC-Big Ten Challenge), 6:30 p.m., ESPN2

Dec. 1 WEBER STATE, TBA

Dec. 8 vs. Arizona, United Center, Chicago, TBA

Dec. 17 WESTERN CAROLINA, TBA

Dec. 20 MIAMI (OHIO), TBA

Dec. 22 vs. Missouri, Scottrade Center, St. Louis, TBA

Dec. 28 LOYOLA (MD), TBA

Dec. 30 TENNESSEE STATE, TBA

Jan. 3 OHIO STATE, 7 p.m., ESPN

Jan. 6 PENN STATE, 1 p.m., BTN

Jan. 10 at Wisconsin, 8 p.m., ESPN/ESPN2

Jan. 13 at Indiana, noon/3:30 p.m., CBS

Jan. 16 MICHIGAN, 8 p.m., BTN

Jan. 19 at Purdue, 1 p.m., ESPN

Jan. 22 at Ohio State, 8 p.m., BTN

Jan. 27 NORTHWESTERN, 7 p.m., BTN

Jan. 30 at Michigan State, 8 p.m., BTN

Feb. 2 PURDUE, 2:30 p.m., BTN

Feb. 7 INDIANA, 8 p.m., ESPN/ESPN2

Feb. 12 at Minnesota, 8 p.m., BTN

Feb. 16 at Penn State, 6 p.m., BTN

Feb. 20 WISCONSIN, 8 p.m., BTN

Feb. 23/24 at Michigan, 1 p.m./3 p.m., TBA

March 1/2 at Iowa, TBA

March 4/5/6 MICHIGAN STATE, TBA

March 8 MINNESOTA, noon, BTN

March 13-16 Big Ten Tournament, Indianapolis

March 20-23 NCAA tournament first and second rounds

March 27-30 NCAA regional semifinals and finals

April 5/7 Final Four, San Antonio