Green on nonconference schedule: 'We're going to challenge ourselves'

Sep. 13—CHAMPAIGN — A secret scrimmage ahead of Shauna Green's first season as Illinois women's basketball coach was an early indicator to Green and her players the Illini were due for a turnaround season.

That scrimmage against Notre Dame last October at State Farm Center became the basis for Illinois to produce the program's best season in two decades, with the Illini posting a 22-10 record, a top-six finish in the Big Ten standings and a return trip to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003.

A year later, with Green returning her entire starting five and the top-six rotation players along with adding center Camille Hobby from North Carolina State in the transfer portal, Illinois will again play Notre Dame.

This time, however, the game won't be a scrimmage. But rather a nonconference game on national television on a neutral court.

The Illini announced on Tuesday the first game of their 2023-24 nonconference schedule ahead of year two with Green as coach. Illinois will face Notre Dame on Nov. 18 for the second annual Citi Shamrock Classic at Entertainment & Sports Arena in Washington, D.C. The game, which is set for a noon tip at the home venue of the WNBA's Washington Mystics, will be televised on NBC and streamed on Peacock. It will mark Illinois' first-ever appearance on NBC.

Game tickets will go on sale to the general public on Sept. 28, with Illini women's basketball season-ticket holders and I Fund donors getting earlier access to tickets.

The Irish concluded last season ranked 11th in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll and lost 76-59 to Maryland in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, as Niele Ivey's team delivered a 27-6 record.

Illinois and Notre Dame could have met in the NCAA tournament this past March with Illinois sent to South Bend, Ind. But the 11th-seeded Illini lost in a First Four game to Mississippi State. The Bulldogs went on to defeat Creighton in the first round before the Irish eliminated Mississippi State in the second round.

The Illinois-Notre Dame matchup is the only announced nonconference game for the Illini despite the start to the season less than two months away.

"This schedule compared to last year when we got here, our phone was ringing off the hook of people wanting to play us," Green said Monday night on WDWS' 'SportsTalk' at the Esquire in downtown Champaign. "We got our schedule done in two weeks last year. This year, it's been a little bit more challenging. It is done and hopefully it will come out soon. I think everyone will be excited about it. There's some challenging games on there, definitely a huge step up from last year's schedule, so we're going to challenge ourselves with some really good games and that will prepare us for Big Ten play."

The Irish also return many of their key pieces, including the top-three scorers led by junior Olivia Miles. The 5-foot-10 guard was an AP Second Team All-American after averaging 14.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 6.9 assists. Miles, though, missed the final month of last season with a knee injury after getting injured in Notre Dame's regular-season finale last February.

The chance to play the Irish represents a significant upgrade to Illinois' nonconference schedule. The Illini played twice against power-conference schools in Green's first year, a 92-71 victory at Pittsburgh as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and a 76-66 Braggin' Rights win at Missouri. The Panthers went 10-20 last season, while the Tigers had a 18-14 record this past winter.

On Monday, Green hinted at more power-conference nonconference games for Illinois to be announced later, with the Illinois coach mentioning a potential home-and-home with "a really good school" and "a couple big-time schools on neutral courts."

"Last year, it was what it was, in terms of our scheduling," Green said. "We couldn't really do anything about it. It fit, I thought, our team that we had. I wasn't going to schedule all these tough games. I thought that the schedule for last year's team was appropriate."

Much like how she's approaching the schedule this upcoming winter after the turnaround the Illini experienced last season.

"Now, what happened last year, I thought we had to make adjustments to our schedule to fit our team and the talent and the returners that we have coming back, because I also know how important your nonconference schedule is, especially coming from a school like Dayton, where everything we did was based on our schedule and our nonconference and RPI and NET and how can you get to be an at-large team," Green said. "I have a lot of experience in that scheduling piece and again, when our schedule comes out, you guys will see it's elevated.

"It's definitely a lot tougher schedule than last year. But then you can't go and schedule a crazy schedule and go into Big Ten and you may lose some of those games. There's a fine line. Every year, you have to evaluate your team and what they need in terms of their schedule."