Hoops: Notre Dame visits Illinois in ACC/Big Ten Challenge

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

It was one of the career highlights for former Notre Dame power forward Jordan Cornette, and until last March, the high-water postseason mark for the program under coach Mike Brey.

On a MaRch Saturday afternoon in downtown Indianapolis, inside the long-since-gone RCA Dome, Notre Dame sailed into the 2003 NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 for the first time in 16 seasons by doing what many figured could not be done — beating Big Ten tournament champion and No. 3 seed Illinois.

The defensive-minded Cornette hounded league Player of the Year and future NBA first-round draft pick Brian Cook into a 6-of-23 shooting slump, while Dan Miller dropped five 3-pointers for a game-high 23 points to give the Irish a 68-60 victory in the second-round tournament game.

It was the last game at Illinois for coach Bill Self, who in the months that followed would be off to Kansas, and the last time the teams met for over a dozen years.

That changes early in the 2015-16 college basketball season.

The 17th-annual Big Ten/ACC Challenge sends Notre Dame back out on the road for the second time in three years, and to a place where it hasn’t been since 1954.

It was unveiled early Wednesday afternoon that Notre Dame will visit Illinois on Wednesday, Dec. 2. Tip times and specific ESPN channels for all the games in the Challenge will be announced in August.

Now working in Chicago for Campus Insiders, Cornette admitted that he’s still often asked about and reminded of that day in Indianapolis. By Irish fans. By Illini fans. He believes it’s about time the teams meet for the first time since that Irish win.

“It’s a great opportunity for Notre Dame to have a regional matchup in the Challenge,” Cornette said. “It generates a lot of excitement, especially in Chicago. It’s awesome.”

Word of the matchup took Cornette back a dozen years to his sophomore year of college. Notre Dame nearly was sent home some 36 hours earlier, only to have an opponent’s point-blank layup roll off the rim in the closing seconds of a 70-69 victory over Wisconsin-Milwaukee. With the Irish able to survive that upset bid, there was no way they were going to lose to the Fighting Illini.

“We expected to win,” Cornette said. “You saw that determination in the eyes of Danny Miller. He transferred in for one reason — to make a run in the NCAA Tournament.

“He exemplified what we were about that day.”

Illinois finished 19-14 overall, 9-9 and tied for seventh with Indiana in the Big Ten last winter. The Illini lost to Alabama in the first round of the postseason National Invitation Tournament.

Notre Dame went 32-6, 14-4 in the Atlantic Coast Conference before winning the league tournament title and advancing to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1979.

A year ago, a fragile Irish team, still smarting from a 15-17 showing in 2013-14, didn’t play a true road game until the league schedule demanded they go to North Carolina in early January. Notre Dame needed a heavy and healthy dose of home cooking to get some confidence. This coming season, the opposite is true. The more early-season tests the better for a squad that returns six of its top eight contributors.

“You need to get an early look at what the heart of this Irish team is going to be,” Cornette said. “They’ll be looking to see who are going to be the leaders.”

Coming off last season’s successes, especially in postseason, Notre Dame could use an early road challenge or two. The Irish likely will get it at Illinois. The game is expected to be the first in the newly-renovated State Farm Center — formerly known as Assembly Hall — on the Champaign campus.

Illinois plans to play its first five home games in Springfield, while the $64-million renovation is finalized.

Illinois leads the all-time series 26-13, including 11-1 in Champaign. Notre Dame’s lone road win was a 26-14 decision in 1926.

The campuses are separated by 192 miles.

Illinois went 14-2 at home last season, with losses to Indiana and Michigan State.

Notre Dame is 1-1 in the Challenge. The Irish beat eventual Final Four participant Michigan State at Purcell Pavilion in overtime last December. Notre Dame lost at Iowa in its first Challenge, in December 2013.

The Big Ten won last season’s matchup, 8-6, after the previous two seasons ended in a tie. Georgia Tech is the lone ACC team not participating in this year’s Challenge. The Big Ten has one fewer team (14) than the ACC (15).

Illinois is one of as many as three Big Ten teams on Notre Dame’s schedule this season. Indiana, which will be ranked well inside the preseason Top 25 and one of the favorites to challenge for the league championship, is Notre Dame’s opponent in the annual Crossroads Classic game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on Dec. 19.

Days before traveling to Illinois, Notre Dame may meet up with former Irish assistant coach Fran McCaffery and Iowa in the Orlando Classic at Walt Disney World over Thanksgiving weekend. The Hawkeyes and Irish are in a field that also includes Alabama, Dayton, Southern California, Wichita State and Xavier.

Matchups for that tournament typically are announced in early summer.

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Guard Steve Vasturia and Notre Dame will visit Illinois in December as part of the annual ACC/Big Ten Challenge.SBT File Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ