Making their first trip to Spokane, the No. 13 Illini face a major challenge Saturday night while trying for a third consecutive victory over the 10th-ranked Bulldogs in a matchup of 9-0 teams.
Illinois has been an early surprise, winning the Maui Invitational and rebounding from last season when it started 10-0 but lost 12 of the final 14 to miss the NCAA tournament for the third time in five years. While that ugly finish cost coach Bruce Weber his job, the Illini have transitioned nicely under Groce.
They have solid victories over Southern California, Butler and Georgia Tech, but this will be their first game against a ranked opponent. The Illini have won four of five against Gonzaga but only one of those contests was played in Washington - a 73-61 Illinois win Dec. 4, 2010, in Seattle. The Bulldogs won 85-83 in overtime in Chicago on Jan. 2, 2010.
Groce, however, knows his team faces a difficult task at the raucous McCarthey Center, where Gonzaga has reeled off 17 consecutive victories. Five have come this year, as the Bulldogs are off to the best start in their Division I history.
"I've been told (Gonzaga coach Mark Few) thinks it's his best team,'' said Groce, whose team won 78-77 in overtime at Hawaii in its only true road game. "That's a great environment. It's an exciting challenge, a national TV game against a top 10 team.''
If Illinois is to have a chance it must play better than it did during Tuesday's 72-64 victory over Western Carolina. The Illini shot 40.0 percent and were tied at 53 with just under 6 minutes to play before pulling away. The Catamounts remained competitive by shooting 6 of 10 from 3-point range in the second half.
"We always play half a game and have spurts where we play good and spurts where we play bad," said senior D.J. Richardson, who had 13 points. "We have to be tough."
The Illini likely can't afford a lack of toughness against the Bulldogs, who rank among the national leaders in rebounding at 41.1 per game and give up an average of 58.8 points. Illinois is 10th in the Big Ten pulling down 36.2 boards.
"We gave game balls to both of these guys,'' Few said. "These two players down the stretch were big for us.''
While Illinois has a talented backcourt trio of Brandon Paul (17.8 ppg), Tracy Abrams (11.3) and Richardson (12.3), Gonzaga guards Gary Bell Jr. and Kevin Pangos came up big Wednesday. Bell scored 14 while Pangos endured a 2-for-12 shooting night but made the winning layup with 2 seconds left.
"Gonzaga is very good,'' Washington State coach Ken Bone said. "There is a reason they are the No. 10 team in the country.''
Averaging 16.7 points and 9.7 rebounds in three games versus Illinois, Harris scored 19 in last season's 82-75 loss in Champaign. Richardson has totaled 34 points on 12-of-23 shooting in the last two versus Gonzaga.
The Bulldogs have dropped four straight home games against ranked, non-conference opponents dating to a 97-77 win over No. 13 Washington on Dec. 9, 2006.