Bob Asmussen | Bring on the big boys of college basketball

May 8—CHAMPAIGN — Eventually, the full Illinois men's basketball schedule will be released, with anonymous reports trickling out Tuesday the Illini will play Duke next season at Madison Square Garden.


But don't hold your breath on the full slate of games.

A year ago, the team's set of nonconference games was announced on Aug. 16, with the conference games unveiled on Sept. 19. A word of advice to the Big Ten: That is way too late, especially when considering the new travel destinations in Washington, Oregon and California.

Big Ten football schedules are known five years out. Not basketball. Weird. And annoying.

But there is one positive to the procrastination: It allows teams to line up opponents the fans actually want to pay to see.

Right now, Illinois has two nonconference opponents we know for sure: Missouri in St. Louis on a date to be announced for the annual Braggin' Rights game and a return game with Tennessee coming to Champaign on Dec. 14 after the Illini and Vols played last December in Knoxville, Tenn.

The game with Missouri is there forever. And while it would be cool to see the game at campus venues on occasion, the setup in downtown St. Louis is too perfect to change.

The series isn't quite as good when one of the teams is in a down cycle. Like Missouri at the moment.

Dennis Gates and the Tigers are coming off a nightmarish season, finishing 0-18 in the SEC and 8-24 overall. Illinois won at the Enterprise Center 97-73 last December and it wasn't that close. The Tigers were awful.

So count on Missouri and a trip to The Hill in late December.

But there are 20 conference games, 10 each on the road and at home. That leaves 10 spots to fill, with most of those games at home.

It won't be 10 powerhouses. Brad Underwood's responsibility is to find the right mix of teams that is challenging but not overwhelming. Remember, most of the guys on the team are new to Illinois. It will take time to get everyone moving in the same direction.

The advantage for Underwood is he is dealing from a position of strength. The fan base is thrilled with him after last year's run to the Elite Eight and another Big Ten tournament title. If he wants to schedule like Michigan State's Tom Izzo, who routinely loads up the Spartans with a bunch of nasty games, there is no downside.

Maybe only a handful of coaches in the country have more job security than Underwood. Izzo, Connecticut's Dan Hurley, Kansas' Bill Self, Purdue's Matt Painter, Gonzaga's Mark Few and Marquette's Shaka Smart. Maybe a few others. So Underwood can fill it up with the best of the best.

If he wants a short list, I am willing to help. I've been here for 35 years and have a good read on Illinois fans.

Of course, they want to see wins ... against respectable teams. A game or two against teams toward the bottom of the national NET rankings is fine. But not 10 of those.

Here is my list of teams Illinois should play next season and beyond. At home whenever possible or at a nearby venue (the United Center works just fine).

As long as Self is coaching the Jayhawks, this will always top the list. Last season's exhibition game gave fans a taste of the potential rivalry. Self seemed to enjoy the experience and might be up for a home-and-home series with his former employer.

Might want to play the home game this season, though. Coming off a disappointing year, Kansas is loaded and a potential preseason No. 1. Illinois fans would like a chance to shout at AJ Storr, the former Illini commit who transferred from Wisconsin to Kansas. And Hunter Dickinson is one of the most hated opponents in Illinois program history. Maybe hate is too strong of a word? Nahh, it's right.

Not sure hate is strong enough to describe the feelings of Illinois fans toward Tigers coach Bruce Pearl. It has been more than three decades since he went after Lou Henson's program when he was an assistant coach at Iowa. But the memories are long in these parts.

Pearl has faced Illinois as a head coach, but never in Champaign. It's probably never going to happen, but it would be loudest game in program history. By far. Fans would start booing a week before the game.

. Doubtful that any program raises the ire of Illinois fans more than the one in Chapel Hill. The feeling is the Tar Heels basically cheated Illinois out of the 2005 national title by using the players who shouldn't have been eligible. Then, the officials finished the job.

The teams have played twice since the national title game, with Illinois winning both, first in 2005 in Chapel Hill and then 2010 in Champaign. Might as well try to make it three in a row.

Not nearly as much fun with John Calipari off to Arkansas. Unbelievably, the teams haven't played in 40 years. The Wildcats beat Illinois by three in the 1984 NCAA tournament in Lexington, Ky., an outcome that forever changed NCAA tournament rules. You can't play on your home court. Technically, the Wildcats owe Illinois a trip to State Farm Center.

So this is kind of bizarre. The teams have played four times since Deron Williams, Dee Brown and pals pulled off the comeback of the century in 2005. The Wildcats have won all four in four different arenas. Time to bring Tommy Lloyd's team back to State Farm Center (they last played there in 2021).

Illinois has only played Mark Few's program seven times and holds a 5-2 record. Doubt anyone has that many wins against Few. But a bigger sample size is needed. Both Illinois losses were neutral sites, in Hawaii and Chicago. The preference is the game is back in Champaign. Illinois is going to have enough trips to the West Coast in the conference schedule.

Call the Mountaineers Illinois East, with Chester Frazier on the staff and Amani Hansberry and Sencire Harris on the roster as transfers. I'd like a football version, too. The teams last met in 2016 during a forgettable Thanksgiving weekend the Illini spent in Brooklyn, N.Y., but all four games prior to that happened in the 1960s.

The schools are less than an hour apart and have played eight times in their history. That is way too low. Illinois has never lost to the Redbirds. The only game between the schools in Normal was in 1930, not long before Loren Tate was born.

This needs to be a home-and-home. Bring the Wildcats to State Farm Center this year and have Underwood visit his alma mater in 2025. He can tell the fans and his team all about Aggieville, the Manhattan version of Campustown.

Another old-school program Illinois has rarely played, only seven times. Kevin Kruger, who spent part of his youth in Champaign with dad Lon, is now in charge of the Runnin' Rebels. Fans will happily make the return trip to Las Vegas.