CHAMPAIGN — Without so much as a reservation, Brad Underwood looked into a computer monitor and unequivocally proclaimed his confidence in the college basketball season starting in just more than a month.
"Without a doubt the season will start on November 25," said Underwood, Illinois' head men's basketball coach.
The Illinois men's basketball team started practice on Wednesday with the caveat that there's not yet a schedule in place for the upcoming season. Of course, in a non-COVID-impacted year the schedule would have long since been released and fans would begin putting plans in place to see what should be the best Illinois basketball team since 2005.
According to a report from CBSSports' Matt Norlander, Illinois will host a multi-team event (MTE) from Nov. 25-27 that includes a three-game round robin with Ohio, Wright State and North Carolina A&T. Stadium's Jeff Godman reports Illinois will travel to Orlando on Dec. 2 to play Baylor in a top-10 matchup in the Jimmy V Classic. Illinois has not confirmed either of those reports.
The Illini have already postponed a home game against Arizona to 2021 and were scheduled to play in the Emerald Coast Classic before it was canceled. The Big Ten/ACC Challenge is scheduled to go on and teams are waiting for clarity from the Big Ten on what the conference schedule will look like, though some expect a 20-game season to remain.
In short? Confusion.
“There’s been nothing like it,” Underwood said. “It’s truly COVID 2020 unprecedented as so many things are. We don’t have a lot of answers. We have a ton of questions that have to be answered."
It sounds like men's and women's basketball will venture into the non-conference world for the first since the pandemic invaded the world in March. Some college football teams have played non-conference games, but the deep dive into the pool will come with basketball. That brings its own questions from officials flying around the country from stop to stop to testing differences from conference to conference.
"Men’s basketball and women’s basketball, we’re the first to break the seal, I guess, on non-league games," Underwood said. "That’s posed some problems and challenges. Until some of those questions are answered and are answered in the best interest and safety of our student-athletes, it does post a lot of problems and challenges.
“There’s a lot of issues that don’t have a lot to do with games but have everything to do with scheduling the games. It’s maddening. It’s been a challenge and still is."
On top of all of that, teams will have to schedule around finals and perhaps holidays when student-athletes return to their families for a stretch. The goal is to safely navigate the non-conference schedule to make it to the Big Ten schedule, though Underwood understands the ever-present risk of the virus.
“We know it’s not going to come off unscathed more than likely," Underwood said. "Teams are going to have issues. We could have issues. You’ve got to be very safe knowing other teams and conferences aren’t testing the way we’re testing. We’ve got an issue with officials. Officials flying around the country commercial, they’re independent contractors. All those things happen in non-league games. How do you control those things and control hotels, control air travel, control buses?
“That’s the No. 1 objective for us is how do you schedule non-league games is the safety so we can get to Big Ten play an hopefully be as safe and as healthy as we can be."
Illinois has played Missouri every year in St. Louis since 1980 in the annual Braggin' Rights game. Underwood said there have been conversations with Mizzou.
“There’s all sorts of talks with everybody going on and Missouri is part of those conversations," he said. "Right now the Big Ten has no crowds, no attendance, no fans anyway. I think there’s a lot of conversation going on with everybody. No stone is being left out."
Underwood said they've tried to be up front with the players through the process and talks about the schedule weekly. When the season was delayed, the coaching staff kept the players informed. But in terms of daily conversations? Not so much. There isn't that much news to share.
A safe, competitive non-conference schedule is the goal. Underwood knows what lies ahead in the loaded Big Ten.
“We’ll tell them it’s going to be one of the great schedules," Underwood said. "The Big Ten’s going to be better than it’s ever been and top to bottom this can look like one of the toughest schedules in the history of Illinois basketball. We’ve got to be prepared and at the end of the day we’ll see how it all plays out."
PHOTOS: 31 amazing Illini basketball history photos
Lou Henson in 1993
Easy does it
Free for all
Hero of the hour
Illinois v. Iowa
Talk of the Big Ten
To the wire
Whiz Kids Big Ten champs in '42, '43
Wrong, Mr. Referee
Contact Joey Wagner at (217) 421-6970. Follow him on Twitter: @mrwagner25
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