It seems funny to call Saturday’s basketball game at Gonzaga the first true test for the Illini, especially since they’ve already had a number of close calls this year (see Western Carolina, Hawaii and Gardner Webb). Regardless, this is the first ranked opponent, and the second true road test (again, see Hawaii).
Gonzaga is currently No. 10 in the country, and they are one of the few teams in the league that can boast the same 9-0 record as Illinois. Gonzaga started out with a lot more hype than the Illini (preseason 21), so everyone is just assuming they are the better team.
However, when you take a look at the schedules of both teams, Gonzaga really doesn’t have anything on Illinois. Both teams won their early-season tournament, Maui Invitational for Illinois and Old Spice Classic for Gonzaga. It’s fair to say that the overall tournament field was tougher for Illinois with teams like UNC and Marquette on the schedule, but – that’s not who Illinois actually played.
Gonzaga got through Clemson, Oklahoma and Davidson to win their tournament, while Illinois fought USC, Chaminade and Butler. For some reason, the Old Spice Classic gave teams an extra day before the championship game in Orlando, FL, while Illinois had to power through three days of straight basketball in Hawaii to win.
So far, I’d say even ground.
Our won true road game was at Hawaii, which isn’t that different than Gonzaga heading to Washington State. Also, you have to consider the fact that at just a little over an hour away, there had to be some Gonzaga fans in those stands.
Other opponents for Gonzaga: Southern Utah, West Virginia, South Dakota, Lewis-Clark St and Pacific. So really not that impressive, and none of those teams are ranked.
Before I get too excited, Gonzaga does have a leg up in that they’ve annihilated almost every opponent, winning by nearly 30 points every time, save for that one road trip just yesterday at Washington State. That game they scraped by 71-69. Gonzaga has also hit 100 twice this year, and also 96. Considering Illinois has had 3 close games so far this year, and that Georgia Tech game was a little too close for comfort at 75-62.
Illinoi hasn’t faced any ranked opponent either this year, and the one road trip to Hawaii was a bit of a mess. While no opponents were ranked, Butler did beat a ranked UNC, so that’s something. Right? Right?! And, unlike Gonzaga, we have tons of experience coming from behind to win before the buzzer sounds.
Even though it feels like he’s been on the team for about 15 years, it appears that Elias Harris is STILL on Gonzanga. He’s a senior, so that means he’ll finally be out of my hair. He is averaging 16.8 points and 8.1 rebounds a game, and last year we had Meyers Leonard to shut him down in that 82-75 win at Assembly Hall.
This year, the job of guarding Harris will go to Nnanna Egwu I’m guessing, or perhaps D.J. Richardson will take on the duties. Richardson maybe be smaller, but he’s proven he is a defensive force to be reckoned with.
Another positive is that Robert Sacre has finally graduated, because that guy scared the crap out of me. A quick look at their roster introduced me to a fellow named Przemek Karnowski, who is 7’1. It looks like that guy is averaging 9 points a game, but sometimes he hits 20 and other times he hits 6.
My prediction is, this game will be a loss. Last year, Illinois managed to beat a ranked No. 19 Gonzaga, giving them an 8-0 start. Well, at 9-0 they’ve already surpassed that, but we all know what happened in the end of last year.
Naysayers are insisting that Illinois is overrated (I will admit No. 13 seems a tad high), so it’d be great if they could go in and prove everyone wrong with a win. My guess is if this game were to be played at Assembly Hall, I’d have a different prediction. But, a road game makes the playing field a lot less even.
On the bright side, a loss would not be the end of the world. Losing to a top 10 team won’t hurt the ranking or RPI that much, and it could show Coach John Groce where we might need to improve before heading to Missouri, and then into the Big Ten season.
That being said, I would still suggest leaving me alone for a few hours if the game does indeed result in the first loss for the Illini this year.
The game will be Saturday at 9pm on ESPN2.