It’s going to feel like Halloween a month late in Champaign, Illinois, because there will be a whole lot of Orange there on November 29.
Finally, a tough non-conference opponent. The seventh game Syracuse announces on its schedule features an Illinois team that has been one of the Big Ten’s elite in recent years. And what a turnaround it has been for Head Coach Brad Underwood and the Illini. Illinois was a combined 26-39 in Underwood’s first two seasons at the helm (2017-19), but the tables have turned since. Three straight 20-win seasons. A conference championship in 2021. A regular-season conference championship this past year. Needless to say, things have changed a lot for the better.
That being said, this Illinois team may not be as formidable as the past three seasons. The Illini were lucky enough to have one of the most dominant big men in college basketball in Kofi Cockburn over that stretch. That run is no more though.
That certainly makes things easier.
It’s a difficult matchup (finally!) but it’s not super difficult like a Purdue or a Michigan would be, which is why Illinois is the perfect opponent for the Orange. The Illini feature a player with championship experience in Baylor transfer Matthew Mayer but they certainly shouldn’t run SU out of the gym.
Syracuse’s final game before heading to Champaign is against Bryant. You can almost certainly mark the Bulldogs down as a W, but that game will not get the young guns ready for ACC play. This contest against a really really good but not overwhelmingly good Illinois team is a step in the right direction.
That’s what Syracuse should do with however many remaining non-conference games it has yet to announce. A tough but not super tough opponent to the point where they’re playing the second coming of the Monstars. And maybe do everything in their power to get it home too? Last season’s thriller over Indiana showed what a home-court advantage can do against a tough team, whereas things didn’t go great in NYC or the Bahamas.
Illinois is the toughest opponent so far on an otherwise pretty easy schedule. Thank goodness Syracuse didn’t get matched up with a Big Ten cellar dwellar like Nebraska or Minnesota.
Last season the Orange played 11 games outside of the ACC. With the seven currently announced as well as the two games in Brooklyn Thanksgiving week, there’s two open slots on SU’s schedule. The Illini are the perfect example of what Syracuse should look to schedule: difficult, but under no circumstances should SU get dominated like last year’s squad did against tougher teams. This year’s squad feels more balanced whereas last year’s relied on the 3-pointer way too much. The Orange should be able to hang with tougher competition this season, and they’ll have a fantastic chance to prove it on November 29.