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.