Augustana Basketball

Augustana coach Grey Giovanine will lead his team into action against an NCAA Division I opponent for the eighth time in his 19 seasons when the Vikings visit Illinois on Nov. 22.

Louis Brems/Quad-City Times

Grey Giovanine wanted a marquee challenge for his veteran Augustana basketball team this season.

Illinois will provide one.

Returning four starters and nearly every reserve from a team which finished as the runner-up at the NCAA Division III Final Four in March, the Vikings will take the court against a Division I opponent for the first time since winning a 2014 exhibition at Bradley when they visit the Fighting Illini on Nov. 22.

“It’s a terrific opportunity for all of our players, great exposure for the college, good for recruiting and for our team, it’s good motivation to get ready for the season,’’ Giovanine said. “The chance to play a Big Ten team, to play in that environment is something our guys will always remember.’’

The game is part of the regular-season schedule for Illinois and will count in the won-loss column for the Fighting Illini.

For Augustana it counts as an exempt game, meaning that it is not among the 25 games that count for postseason qualification purposes for NCAA Division III programs.

The opportunity came about because of Giovanine’s relationship with Illinois’ new coaches.

While he was working as an assistant at Valparaiso, he once recruited Fighting Illini coach Brad Underwood and new Illinois assistant Ron Coleman was the leading scorer on three Giovanine-coached teams at Lamar.

“I’ve known Brad Underwood for years and even though I couldn’t get him to come to Valpo, we’ve stayed in touch and with one my former players now on staff, I’m always saying that if the possibility to play ever comes up it would be a heck of thing for our guys,’’ Giovanine said.

That suggestion became a reality earlier this summer when Illinois was looking to fill one last vacancy on its nonconference schedule and Augustana was able to make the date on the day before Thanksgiving work.

“I’m ecstatic that we were able to make it work,’’ Giovanine said. “It’s something our guys will remember for the rest of their lives and it will also be a tremendous challenge for us which is a good thing, too.’’

The game will be the eighth for the Vikings against a Division I opponent during Giovanine’s 19 seasons at Augustana, including regular-season games at Western Illinois during the 2000-01 season, Southern Illinois in 2004-05 and most recently at Gonzaga in 2009-10.

The Vikings have also played exhibitions at Northern Illinois, Valparaiso and Iowa, losing an 87-65 game during the 2013-14 season in addition to winning 58-56 at Bradley prior to the star of the 2014-15 season.

Augustana outscored the Hawkeyes from the field in that game, and benefited from it in many ways.

“That really was the game that started us on our recent run of success. It set a tone for the season, opened the eyes of our guys as to just how good they could be when they performed at a high level,’’ said Giovanine, whose team has played in the national championship game twice in the last three seasons.

The starting time for the match-up at the State Farm Center against an Illinois team returning two starters has not yet been determined. Giovanine said there is a possibility it will be televised by the Big Ten Network.

Illinois and Augustana have met on the basketball court twice previously, both in games played in the Quad-Cities.

The Fighting Illini won a 37-26 game at Wharton Field House in Moline during the 1933-34 season and four years later, Illinois won a 43-27 game played at the Rock Island Armory.

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