Illinois-Gonzaga Preview

Though Gonzaga has historically struggled against Illinois,

first-year Fighting Illini coach John Groce knows his team must be

at its best if that success is to continue.

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


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.

Gonzaga big men Elias Harris (16.8 points per game, 8.1 rebounds

per game) and Kelly Olynyk (13.8 ppg, 7.0 rpg) combined for 45

points in Wednesday’s 71-69 win at Washington State.

“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.