Spokane, WA (Sports Network) - The only game on Saturday to pit nationally-
ranked teams against each other has No. 10 Gonzaga entertaining No. 13
John Groce has the Fighting Illini off to their best start under a first-year
head coach in the modern era, undefeated after nine games. The only other head
coach to begin his tenure with as many consecutive victories was Fletcher Lane
who registered 12 straight wins back in 1907-08. However, it is important to
note that 11 of those 12 wins came against YMCA/Athletic Club programs.
The most recent win for Illinois came earlier this week when the team took
down Western Carolina in a 72-64 final at home. After this game with the 9-0
Bulldogs, the Illini head home to challenge Norfolk State and Eastern
Gonzaga head coach Mark Few has guided several of his teams to national
prominence over the years, but the 2012-13 version has set the new standard by
also winning nine straight games out of the gate, the best start in the
squad's Division I history. On Wednesday, it appeared the run might be over,
but thanks to Kevin Pangos who drove the length of the floor and converted a
layup with two seconds remaining, the Bulldogs managed to pull off a 71-69 win
over Washington State on the road.
Last season, these two squads squared off with the Illini handing the Zags an
82-75 setback in order to move out to a 4-1 advantage in the all-time series.
Both teams shot at least 51.0 percent from the floor in the contest, but the
Gonzaga converted only 18-of-27 at the charity stripe and turned the ball over
16 times on UI's home floor.
Illinois shot a woeful 34.3 percent from the field in the first half against
Western Carolina the last time out, yet that was still better than the
Catamounts who sank just six field goals over the first 20 minutes of action.
Eventually the Illini made better choices in order to convert 46.7 percent in
the second half, holding on for the eight-point win. Brandon Paul was tops on
the team with 14 points, although his 5-of-15 from the floor and 1-of-6 effort
beyond the arc was less than optimal. D.J. Richardson added 13 points and
Tracy Abrams another 10 in the win. Defensively, Illinois held the visitors to
just 38.5 percent shooting from the floor and forced WCU into 22 turnovers
which the hosts traded in for 29 points. Illinois, which is forcing an average
of 16 miscues per game, has been limiting opponents to 63.3 ppg which gives
the Illinois a margin of plus-15.4 ppg, but while the unit has crushed an
opponent like USC by 30 points, it has barely survived against Hawaii (78-77
in OT) and Gardner-Webb (63-62). Paul paces the group with his 17.8 ppg and is
one of four players averaging at least four rebounds per game as well.
Richardson (12.3 ppg) and Abrams (11.3 ppg) have combined with Paul to account
for 81 of the team's 113 assists thus far.
Outside of his game-winning shot, Pangos was awful on Wednesday as he shot
only 2-of-12 from the floor, including 1-of-5 behind the three-point line, but
when it counted most he came up big. Elias Harris was the top scorer for the
visitors with his 23 points, adding six rebounds, four steals and a trio of
assists, followed by Kelly Olynyk who came off the bench for a change to give
the squad another 22 points and seven rebounds, hitting all but four of his 14
field goal attempts. Gary Bell responded with 14 points and five rebounds as
the team made good on 50.9 percent from the floor, but struggled again at the
free-throw line (8-of-15) and turned the ball over 16 times. Despite the close
call with Washington State, the Bulldogs are still outscoring the competition
by almost 25 ppg, mostly because the defense has held foes to just 37.5
percent accuracy from the field overall and 31.6 percent behind the three-
point line. The margin of victory could be even greater if not for the team's
weak 60.9 percent effort at the free-throw line, but don't blame Harris (16.8
ppg) for that because he's converted 71.7 percent at the charity stripe.
Olynyk (13.8 ppg), Pangos (10.6 ppg) and Bell (10.1 ppg) have all demonstrated
the sort of unselfish play that has the squad averaging 17 assists per contest
heading into the weekend.
The Sports Network