Illinois coach Bruce Weber is eager to test his cagers against 19th ranked Gonzaga Saturday.
"We're looking forward to Saturday. Gonzaga is a top 20 team. This is our third meeting with them in our series. We had an exciting game with them in the United Center two years ago, an overtime crazy game that had unbelievable runs from one team to the other. And then a game last year in Seattle where we probably played as well as we did all year. We put it to them in Seattle."
The continuing Illini/Gonzaga series is the result of friends scheduling each other. Weber has great respect for Zags head man Mark Few.
"I would consider him one of my friends in the business. He's just a good quality person that does an unbelievable job, not only with the program there but also his involvement beyond coaching. He's one of the leaders of coaches raising money for Coaches vs. Cancer.
"He's had several opportunities to move, but he likes his situation. His family loves it there. It's a guy you feel good for because of what he does and what he stands for."
Few also does a great job recruiting players from all over the world. His starting lineup includes Canadians Robert Sacre (7'-0", 260) and Kevin Pangos (6'-1", 180) plus German junior Elias Harris (6'-7", 240). And he has four other foreigners on his roster.
Sacre is the man mountain senior in the post. He leads the team with a 16.6 point-per-game average. He also does an outstanding job on the boards, although his 8.2 rebounds is second on the team to Harris, who pulls down 8.8 boards a game. Harris is third on the team in scoring with an 11.8 point average.
Freshman Pangos scores at a 15 point clip, in addition to registering 2.6 assists a game. He exploded for 33 points including 9 of 13 threes against Washington State. Fellow freshman Gary Bell, Jr. (6'-1", 205) starts and scores 8.4 points a game. The fifth starter is senior Marquise Carter (6'-4", 178), who averages 8.6 points and 3.0 assists a game.
Others who have played in all five Gonzaga games are sophomore Dave Stockton, Jr. (5'-11", 152), son of former NBA star John Stockton; sophomore Sam Dower (6'-9", 248); and junior Michael Hart (6'-6", 206). Stockton averages 2.8 assists a game, and Hart pulls down 5.2 boards a game.
Statistics do not tell the whole story.
"It's a big challenge. They have the size of Sacre, the experience of him and Harris, and then they have some youthful players, especially at the guard spots, who have played very well for them."
Harris was recovering from injury when the Illini played him last year, but he is in top form now.
"Harris is really a problem because he's got such a great motor. He's an undersized four with the energy and quickness of a three, and he plays so strong. So it's a tough matchup."
Pangos plays with the Canadian National Team.
"Very confident. Obviously he can shoot the ball. He was an ex-hockey player, he's got some toughness to him. I knew he could shoot, and you saw that in the Washington State game. But he handled the ball, made some plays off screens showing some point guard skills. Bell is a freshman also. He's played real well."
Sacre is literally the biggest problem for the Illini. Can Meyers Leonard, Nnanna Egwu and Ibby Djimde bang with him enough to keep him from getting the ball near the basket? Leonard has the height but not the strength. If nothing else, the matchup will help him against future foes.
"It's a great example for Meyers," Weber explains. "Sacre outweighs him by 20-30 pounds, so it is a different body type. It's a good way to learn, when you play against good players. You see things that they do, and you learn.
"He will get you deep, especially in transition. He gets his body on you. You've got to do a good job of meeting him in transition and not let him post up. So it's a difficult challenge to learn how to get position."
Leonard says he is ready for the challenge.
"Sacre is really big, very strong. I've gone against a lot of the best big guys in the country, either through AAU or USA basketball. So I've had some matchups against some pretty good big guys. I think it's gonna be a battle. I'm willing to bang in the post. I'm certainly not gonna back down, and I don't think he will either. It'll be a good matchup. We'll see what happens Saturday."
Tyler Griffey's defensive assignment might prove equally difficult.
"Elias Harris and Robert Sacre are two very good players," Griffey echoes. I'll be guarding Harris I think. I'll have to keep him in front of me and make him shoot over me. Make him work for every basket, make him take tough shots. He's not gonna make it easy for me, but at the same time he's got to guard Meyers and I. It'll be a fun matchup.
"He's good at facing up to the basket, taking a jab step and going the other way, getting around people. He does a really good job of that."
All five Illini on the floor at any time will have a stiff test defensively. They cannot focus solely on Sacre and Harris. Weber has great respect for Few's offense.
"Mark does a great job offensively. They really put it to Notre Dame right from the start of the game. We're gonna have to one, do a great job of stopping them in transition. They really push the basketball.
"And then we're gonna have to do a good job on Sacre. With his size, if you allow him to get his body on you, he can get you under the basket. We have three bodies that can come at him if we have some foul trouble."
In addition, Gonzaga's defense creates offense.
"They used to play zone, but Mark has tried to play more man-to-man. They'll play a few possessions here and there of zone. One of the things I was most impressed with (against Notre Dame) was their defense. They created a lot of turnovers, which got them into transition."
The Illini are gaining confidence with each win. The game at Maryland was their first on an opponent's home court. Hopefully that will help them in future road tilts. But Weber reminds there is still much to learn.
"It was a nice win for us the other night, but the whole part was learning and growing. Even myself and our staff, we're learning as a team what we can emphasize, what are our strengths, what has evolved. We have so many new guys, so many roles. When it comes down to it, our whole team has a new role.
"In Meyers's case, shot blocking has become a new toy. He's got to learn he can't block every shot. He's got to pick his times when he has angles. Sometimes now he's sitting back waiting to block shots and not guarding his man.
"Near the end of the game, we were trying to get two-man games with him and Tyler. Meyers kept emptying out of the post. During a timeout I said, 'Why do you think we ran that play? It was to get you the ball.' So a little bit of surprise on his part."
Senior guard transfer Sam Maniscalco led the Illini with 24 points at Maryland. He has limits athletically, and he is still rounding into shape after his ankle surgery. But Weber likes what he brings to the team, especially when complimented by the other players.
"Sam can shoot the ball, but he needs his feet under him. If Meyers starts scoring, that's where they start digging in, we get good space, Meyers kicks it outside, we got a couple swings.
"And then he's also smart. His most unbelievable shot was his layup down the stretch. He's done that at least three times, shot clock plays. He gets an angle, gets his shoulder down and goes to the basket and scores in traffic. He's also good on defense. He's not great pressuring, but he's solid. Again, he uses his intelligence."
More than anything, Maniscalco is providing much-needed leadership, putting team needs over self-interest. When asked about his own progress, he quickly shares credit with his younger mates.
"I'm doing all right. The biggest thing is, I'm starting to get my conditioning back after being out for so long. But I wouldn't be having the games I've had if not for my teammates. They're the ones that get me open. Meyers is such a force inside, and they pay him so much attention, I've had countless threes coming from inside-out passes. We're being very unselfish."
The Illini will need the fan support Illini Nation is known to produce according to Weber.
"It's a great chance to make an early December statement against a quality opponent. You hope the crowd is pretty fired up on Saturday, and loud. But you do it by the intensity of your play, playing at that magic level."