Mark Few's Gonzaga Zags have reloaded, again. Despite losing players to the pros, they continue to play at an extremely high level. They have recently fallen out of the Top 25 due to their rigorous schedule, but victories over Wisconsin and Cincinnati were impressive. So also were close losses at Michigan State and against Wake Forest.
All five starters are talented. Senior Matt Bouldin (6'-5", 224) is considered by many to be a future NBA point guard. He leads the team in scoring average (15.1) and assists (3.45). He scored 12 points and added 5 rebounds and 8 assists in a win over Oklahoma Thursday night. Sophomore Demetri Goodson (5'-11", 164) is a burner who compliments Bouldin well.
Robert Sacre is an athletic and energetic post presence at 7'-0", 247. The sophomore scores 11.8 points a game while averaging more than 5 rebounds and 1.33 blocks per outing. He also runs the floor and dives for loose balls. Illlinois center Mike Tisdale will have tough going against Sacre and his two backups, freshman Kelly Olynyk (6'-11", 215) and 7'-5" senior Will Foster.
Freshman Elias Harris (6'-8", 215) is second on the team in scoring with 13.3 points per contest. He is also averaging 6 boards a game while shooting .554 from the field and .356 from the arc. He scored 15 points and added 9 caroms against Oklahoma and provides outstanding athleticism on the front line.
Junior wing Steven Gray (6'-5", 208) is third on the team in scoring and led the Zags against the Sooners with 18. Sophomore Bol Kong (6'-6", 220) scored 14 off the bench Thursday, and he is shooting at a .563 clip including .625 from three. Freshmen G.J. Vilarino (6'-0", 177), Mangisto Arop (6'-5", 208), and Grant Gibbs (6'-4", 204) provide additional depth.
Illinois coach Bruce Weber knows his team will have its hands full Saturday. It must forget the Northwestern game and prepare for war.
"Now you've got to get a quick regroup and go against another Top 25 team in a great environment at the United Center against a good opponent that won't be intimidated. They've already been to Michigan State, Maui and Madison Square Garden. Because of their (weak) league, Mark Few goes at everything and plays a lot of tough games early. Their kids will be ready to go.
"They won the Maui Tournament. They really won the Michigan State game. Michigan State made some big plays down the stretch. It's important if we're gonna continue to make progress with this team this year."
Gonzaga does well the things that have hurt the Illini up to now. They are a great passing team, setting up open teammates with patience. But they are also effective running the break. Their athleticism is conducive both for perimeter and inside attacks.
"It's a scary thing," Weber admits. "They are physical, their big guys can score inside and get to the glass. They will push it. Coach sends the little point guard who's really quick with the basketball to put some pressure on you.
"They don't shoot a lot of threes, but they're at 37%. One kid's 40%, one kid's 38%, another is 40%. One kid's 62%. So they're pretty efficient when they shoot it.
"They have a mixture of an inside presence, and they also do a good job with shooting open shots. I think it's gonna be an up-and-down game, but we're gonna need to limit their easy opportunities as much as possible."
What scares Weber the most about the Zags?
"I think their transition, plus the physicality they have with that. They will post you up hard, but they will still push it and try to score off the pushes. People have scored off them, but they have also scored a lot of points. They beat Davidson the other night 103 to 91."
This is not good news for an Illini team that has struggled all year on the defensive end. Weber discussed the team's defensive problems.
"We're not a defensive-minded team. We have two freshmen who probably could be two of our better defensive players. Right there, I think that tells you something about our older players and what could be one of our problems.
"The freshmen have a lot of different concepts they've never had to deal with. It's still new to them. But we've got to get some pride in our older guys where defense becomes important. They've got to do it in practice and not go through the motions to make some strides. We have to be solid defensively.
"And then, if we can become more efficient offensively, we can solve the problem a little bit. We've got to improve defensively, but the one thing I know I can do to help with is playing smarter, being more efficient on offense, getting better shots, getting the ball inside."
Tisdale and Mike Davis will not have the freedom against Gonzaga they enjoyed in the Northwestern game. With rebounds at a premium, Illini guards must crash the glass. Unfortunately, Weber hasn't had time to teach his perimeter players how to do that.
"Our guards have to rebound. I usually do drills where we work on that, but we haven't done them as much this year. We definitely have to make that a focus over the next days of practice when we have time."
Weber acknowledged he must use his post depth against Gonzaga. Tisdale and Davis played far too many minutes against Northwestern.
"That was the first thing we all said to each other in the locker room as a staff. Mike Davis didn't come out the whole second half, and Mike Tisdale probably wouldn't have come out if he hadn't fouled out. I don't think we can do that on Saturday. Plus, their physical presence."
Weber said Gonzaga would likely be a better matchup than Northwestern for Dominique Keller. He also wants to give freshman Tyler Griffey minutes, not only for depth but to aid his learning process. He even conjured up the name of long-forgotten Richard Semrau, who may be able to provide short-term post defense.
The Illini have not responded well when things don't go their way. Some pout, and others point fingers at teammates. The Illini trailed the Wildcats by nine points at halftime and by 10 with 17 minutes to go on their home court. Not long after that, even though they'd cut their deficit to 50-47, the team bickered enough at the start of a timeout that Weber spiked his greaseboard and marker in the huddle in a pique of anger.
"All year, we have struggled when we have gotten down and things go bad," Weber understates. "We don't have the best team harmony when those things happen."
This time, yelling seemed to work as the Illini gutted out an overtime win. But team chemistry and overall confidence level must improve markedly to beat a team as good as Gonzaga. Illini fans must also hope the Zags will be lethargic with a quick 36 hour turnaround and long plane flight after their New Year's eve game with the Sooners.
The Illini have lost four neutral site games in part because they lack a competitive nature without a home crowd backing them. Weber is hoping a large Illini-oriented crowd will help get them an important victory Saturday. They are 32-8 overall in games played at the United Center.
"We've lost 4 neutral site games, but this will be a little different. I call it a 'neutral home' game because we'll have 21,000 people cheering for us. It will be a nice environment."