Illinois is looking forward to a tough, physical battle in Seattle against a talented and deep Gonzaga squad Saturday. Mark Few has maintained an outstanding record at the Spokane school and recruits worldwide. Three of his players are from Canada, two are from Germany and one from France.
The Zags are 5-2 on the young season after defeating Eastern Washington handily Tuesday. The leading player is senior Steven Gray (6'-5", 205), who averages 21.7 points, 4.8 rebounds, 5+ assists and nearly three steals a game. Gray hit six of seven threes against Eastern Washington. Illinois coach Bruce Weber says Gray is a tough matchup for the Illini.
"He's strong, he's athletic, he's very versatile, he can go inside. He's shooting the ball very well, 43% from three. They do a lot of stuff for him. Probably the best thing they have is Sacre (Robert, 7'-0", 260) screening for him. He's such a good screener, he's big and wide, and he knows it's his job to get him open. It puts everybody in a bind."
Weber will need to play defense on Gray by committee.
"It's a difficult challenge. You've got to use some different guys, from Billy (Bill Cole) to Brandon (Paul) to Jereme (Richmond) to D.J. (Richardson). Some are better on the ball, and some are better chasing him off screens. Someone has to guard him in the post. The problem is you can't keep rotating because they can do so many things with him."
Their next best player is probably sophomore Elias Harris (6'-7", 245), averaging 9.2 points and 4.2 rebounds despite a strained Achilles tendon. Harris didn't play against Eastern Washington. It is presumed he will face the Illini, but he may not be at full strength.
"We've got to anticipate that he plays unless we hear something different," Weber states.
Sacre was unstoppable against the Illini in the United Center last season, Illini center Mike Tisdale fouling out after playing just 11 of the 45 minutes. He is averaging 12 points a game and is their leading rebounder. Weber has great respect for the big man.
"They go to Gray and Harris most. Sacre is a great screener, and they play off him. He's the option after the first option. He's so wide, he's good in transition and running the court, he seals well. If he gets you deep... With Tis and Meyers (Leonard), hopefully we can battle him and not let him become a major factor. If you cut off Harris or cut off Gray, then they're gonna go to him."
Senior forward Cole remembers Sacre well.
"Sacre is so big, and he's tough to deal with. He hurt us last year, so we'll probably put in some post traps for him so we can try to get it out of his hands when he's on the block."
Leonard has only seen him on film but will have to become educated quickly to help on him.
"He's physical and likes to get deep in the post. I'll just try to be physical like I always am and see where we go from there."
Senior power forward Mike Davis will have Harris as his primary assignment but will need to help on Sacre at times.
"Sacre is an enforcer. He's big, 7 foot and about 260-270. The guy has some good post moves. Harris is more of a guard, a 3-4. He can handle the ball. They got the better of me last year, so I'm taking it personal this year so I can stop them."
If the Zags have a problem, it is replacing point guard Matt Bouldin, who was a tough glue guy and leader for them. But junior Demetri Goodson (6'-0", 175) is averaging around 4 assists a game after handling out six with only one turnover against Eastern Washington.
Freshman Sam Dower (6'-9", 248) is averaging over 8 points and 4.5 boards a game. He scored 11 against EWU. Freshman Mathis Monninghoff (6'-7", 189) must be guarded out on the court as he is a three point shooting machine. He has hit 13 of 18 attempts on the young season.
Sophomore Kelly Olynyk (7'-0", 238) backs up Sacre and is averaging 7.5 points and 5.5 boards a game. Other players likely to see action include sophomore Manqisto Arop (6'-6", 208), junior Marquise Carter (6'-4", 178), freshman Mathis Keita (6'-5", 190), and sophomore Mike Hart. The backup point guard is redshirt freshman David Stockton (5'-11", 152), son of fabled NBA point guard John Stockton.
Weber knows his team will have its hands full guarding Gonzaga.
"This will be a big challenge. There's no doubt they have good weapons, especially offensive abilities. You've got some versatile guys. This will be a challenge. Can we limit them on transition and stay with their best guys on defense?"
The Illini have worked hard to improve their defense this season. Defense was lacking against Gonzaga a year ago according to Weber.
"I think our defense is much better than last year. We watched the Gonzaga tape. We all talked about how bad we were on defense. We hope we're better.
"I think the first half (UNC game) we were just okay. The second half I think we did a much better job being in position, being active, containing the dribble and staying disciplined doing what you practiced. I don't know if we're light years ahead of last year, but we're definitely ahead of last year at this point. I hope our guys will continue to have the desire."
One reason for improved defense is the effort being expended by senior point guard Demetri McCamey. After three years of saving himself for offense, Weber says he is trying to expand his game.
"I think he's putting a better effort into it. He's trying to be more accountable. He's not perfect by any means, I wouldn't call him a defensive stopper. If he can be solid it's gonna help us. He's starting to put up numbers on the play-hard chart. That helps us. It means he's in the right position."
One key factor in the game may be Brandon Paul, who has played well this year except against North Carolina. Weber says the Illini need him to step up Saturday.
"He never really got involved (against UNC). We need him to play well in this game because he's somebody that can guard a variety of positions. It would be nice to get him going.
"The thing with Brandon, he likes to go at one speed and Carolina plays pretty quick. The push it and deny a lot of things. That's where he's got to learn to adjust to the different speeds. You can't just make soft cuts, you have to make hard cuts, sometimes cut through the defense. He's got to improve those things to be consistent."
The Illini played two neutral court road games in New York, but this will be a bigger test since many Gonzaga fans will be in attendance.
"This will be a great test," Weber promises. "It's either sold out or close to being sold out. Every time we've gone out there, whether it's Portland, Vegas or Arizona, we seem to get a good group of Illini fans. They will have the majority, so we'll have to deal with the crowd."
Weber sees benefits beyond the one game. The Illini want to have a high seed in the NCAA Tournament, and playing tough opponents aids the cause while making the team tournament-ready.
"It gives you a chance to play a team that is very efficient on offense that you'll have to deal with in a tough environment, an NCAA venue-type. It's got to benefit you in the long run. You want to win, but even if you lose it helps to build. Now if you want to be a high seed, these are the kind of games you've got to win. This is a great opportunity for us to get one on our resume."
Weber says Gonzaga is an excellent opponent, not just this year but in the future. He has a contract with the Zags for a home-and-home in future years. He explains why.
"Mark Few is a great person. He's a good basketball coach, but he's a good person. I think he does it right, he helps in the community. I think he's one of the best guys in the business. You like to play against guys you respect and trust.
"I'm not sure we want to go back and play them at their place. But it's a good game for us. We want to challenge our guys. If we're gonna get good, we have to play against the best."
Tisdale will need to play a good game Saturday. But he needs help from Leonard, who admits to freshman nerves early in his rookie season.
"Yeah somewhat. It was especially big in the games in Madison Square Garden. I was pretty shell-shocked there. But I think it maybe prepared me for the rest of the season. Obviously I've never been on the road in the Big 10.
"Against North Carolina, I was kind of nervous when I got in there. But I got the dunk and dove on the floor, so that's when you feel like you're in the flow of the game."
Leonard is one of several Illini who feel the Gonzaga game is more important than North Carolina.
"That was a big game in the sense we were playing North Carolina. But now this is maybe an even bigger game because they beat us last year, we're going on the road. Although we're not at their place, it will definitely be good for us."
Cole speaks along similar lines.
"This is probably a bigger game than North Carolina was. I think they're gonna be a little tougher for us. It's just the way they match up. It's a huge game for us in terms of a late-season resume.
"We talked about not getting too excited about beating NC. Obviously, it was a game we expected to win. We felt like we were better than them at that point. We're happy we won, but we expected to do it. Now we need to get a bigger win over Gonzaga."
McCamey remembers last year's Gonzaga tilt well. He expects a similar game but hopes for a different result.
"Gonzaga was a real exciting game. We had a couple plays where we could have won it late in the game, if we would have got a stop. So we need to get back to fundamentals. It's gonna come down to late plays again Saturday."
Will there be a letdown after getting fired up for the Tar Heels?
"I don't think so at all," McCamey states. "Gonzaga beat us, so this is a chance for revenge. I think we'll come out and play, especially since the game is on ESPN in front of a huge crowd. So I think everybody is gonna be up and ready for the challenge."