Three to Track: Gonzaga

A few key notes to track tonight as Illinois takes on Gonzaga on the road.

The Illini travel to Gonzaga Saturday night with a chance to validate their 9-0 start and No. 13 ranking.

Here are a few keys to track during tonight's game...

Ready for the bright lights. Illinois enters Saturday's matchup with Gonzaga undefeated and ranked No. 13 -- but the Illini haven't played a team like this, nor have they played in an environment like the McCarthey Athletic Center.

"In the game of the basketball, you've got to be able to play whether it's home, away or neutral," coach John Groce said. "We've got to be unconditional in that regard."

You can make the argument that Illinois may be overrated just a bit, but teams can only play the games on the schedule. You don't play somebody until you play somebody, so you have to put up with the questions until you play, you guessed it, somebody.

Gonzaga is that somebody, ranked No. 10 and matching Illinois' 9-0 record. The Zags are highly rated in offensive and shooting efficiency, rebounding and on defense.

"They're a very good basketball team," Groce said. "They're experienced. They're older, so I know our guys are looking forward to the challenge.

"We've got to get our toughness, our togetherness, that we had back during that (Maui Invitational)."

How will Illinois respond in a marquee matchup, played on the road and televised nationally?

Strengths and weaknesses. Illinois' greatest strength, to this point, has been 3-point shooting (40.6 percent as a team), with almost 40 percent of all made baskets on the season (97 of 248) coming from downtown.

Contrasting that prowess is the Illini's weakness -- rebounding. The team is ranked 142nd nationally with just over 36 rebounds per game. Most recently, Western Carolina outrebounded Illinois, a setback Groce attributed to a lack of toughness.

Can Illinois ride it's strength, shooting from deep, and minimize the damage on the glass?

Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson. With time winding down in a tight game against Western Carolina, Groce inserted Richardson on the court and told him: "You've got to get them together now. Let's go."

Those instructions were an obvious nod to Groce's trust in Richardson, the senior guard who leads the team with 32 minutes played per game.

How did he respond? He scored 10 of his 13 points down the stretch, sparking Illinois to pull away in a game that had been tied with six minutes to play.

Joining Richardson, fellow senior guard Brandon Paul leads the team in scoring (17.8), assists (3.9) and shots attempted (113) and shots made (52).

Not trying to stick set tags on the two (because they both do a little bit of everything for the team), but Richardson is a vocal leader who Groce depends on as a calming influence while Paul provides a statistical leadership that nobody else on the roster can replicate on a nightly basis.

Will these two lead the Illini to victory?

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