Smile Politely

A brief and violent dialogue on the weakest non-conference Illinois Hoops schedule in recent memory

From: Will Leitch
To: Tommy Craggs

Craggs! Craggs! The schedule is out! The non-conference schedule is out, with dates and opponents and everything. Look, here it is!

I know we’re still almost four months away from actual games starting, and I still don’t entirely understand who is going to play forward and center for this team, but the non-conference schedule is as close to a legitimate news item as we’re going to get at the beginning of August. Besides, I still haven’t worked up the intestinal fortitude to talk about the football team yet. Maybe in a couple of weeks; maybe never. It’s always touch and go with those guys. They’re like the wayward aunt you’re not sure you’re comfortable inviting home for the holidays. Sure, you’re not gonna tell her “no” if she’s planning on it… but you’re sort of crossing your fingers that no one remembers this year.
Anyway, to the sked! Some thoughts!
  • Underwood thinks we’re gonna stink early. Yikes, look at those first six games. Southern/Tennessee-Martin/DePaul/Marshall/Augustana/North Carolina Central. Here are the 2016-17 KenPom ratings for those teams, respectively: 326/210/184/149/NA/161. All of those teams were worse than SIU. All of those teams were worse thanMissouri. Obviously, he knows he’s going to need as much time as possible to figure out a rotation, or even who any of these guys are. I know we’re all still stinging a bit from the North Florida and Chattanooga disasters in Springfield a couple of years ago. But if Illinois loses to any of these six teams, the season will already be over. They’re going to be 6-0 heading into the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, and we won’t know zip about the team.
  • There really aren’t any good games at all: The tough games, the non-cupcakes: at Wake Forest (who made the tournament under Danny Manning last year), at UNLV (who, forget about the name, are actually terrible) and… well, Missouri. It it possible that Missouri is the best team we play non-conference? That’s kind of crazy.
  • We play a for-profit school: I wrote about this for Sports On Earth a couple of years ago, but Grand Canyon, whom we play on December 30th, is in fact a for-profit school. It’s complicated, and they’re trying to get non-profit status, but it’s very possible that next year, when they’re finally eligible in the WAC to go to the postseason, that a for-profit school could be in the NCAA Tournament. That seems like the logical extension of… something. Plus: They’re pretty good. That reeks of a no-students-around, holiday hangover, last non-con game upset. Plus: They’re coached by Thunder Dan!

From: Tommy Craggs
To: Will Leitch

If we accept the premise that a non-conference schedule is a useful surrogate marker for the faith a coach has in his program, then, well, shit. Underwood might be glummer about his team’s prospects than we are.

I wasted a morning doing too much math on the back of too many envelopes, just to prove what we already know about the non-conference schedule: that this is a particularly sad plate of sorry-ass cupcakes. Going by KenPom’s numbers, in fact, it’s the sorriest non-conference schedule we’ve put together since at least the start of the Bruce Weber era. Let’s assume for the purposes of this exercise that Illinois’ non-conference opponents will be roughly what they were at the end of last season. If we exclude the Missouri game and the ACC-Big Ten Challenge against Wake Forest, both of which were locked in and thus beyond Brad Underwood’s control, that gives us an average 2017 KenPom ranking of 227. This includes a team, Longwood, that had a reasonable claim last year of being the worst college basketball program in all of Division I. This also includes, as you noted, a for-profit Baptist school that gave Louisville a game.

For the sake of comparison, I ran some similar numbers for the Groce and Weber years, using the opponents’ rankings at season’s end. Under John Groce, the average ranking of our non-Mizzou, non-ACC non-conference opponents was 176. Under Weber, it was 162. Neither coach ever played a non-conference schedule with an average ranking over 200. With Underwood’s 227, we have gone from playing a bunch of Boston Colleges, give or take, to playing a bunch of Lamars, give or take.

I want to believe the fluffy scheduling is the mark of a new coach who genuinely thinks we’re a bubble team and wants to keep as many L’s off the ledger as possible. But I suspect you’re right: Underwood knows we’re gonna suck. The good news, I suppose, is that he’s a real Illini already.

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