The No. 10 Gonzaga Bulldogs are off to their best start in school history, but will face their toughest test this weekend as they welcome the No. 13 Illinois Fighting Illini into the Kennel on Saturday. Both teams enter 9-0, but someone will leave with their first loss of a promising season. Who has the edge? Let’s take a look.
The Illini have been one of the surprise teams so far this season under first-year head coach John Groce. They have come together quickly and played hard early this season, led by the terrific guard play of Tracy Abrams, D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul. The Illini have averaged 11 3-point field goals made during their 9-0 start and have proven they can win by spreading the floor and knocking down shots from range while also attacking the rim off the dribble.
Gonzaga, meanwhile, has been dominant in their early success by being solid at every position on the floor and having great chemistry and balance. Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. can light teams up from beyond the arc while a pair of 7-footers in Kelly Olynyk and Przemek Karnowski patrol the low post. That doesn’t even address the team’s leading scorer and potential Player of the Year candidate Elias Harris, who is by far the best player on the club.
The Bulldogs will have a number of matchup advantages over the Illini on Saturday, starting with Harris. The senior from Germany is a dynamic scorer with quickness and strength that he can use to catch, face-up and attack off the bounce. So far this season, he’s averaging 16.8 points per game with 8.1 rebounds per game and should prove to be a major factor in this game.
After that, there’s Olynyk who has come into his own after redshirting last season as a true seven-footer who can step back and shoot. He’s greatly improved his post game for this season and could prove to be a major thorn in Illinois’ side. This season, he’s averaged 14 points and seven rebounds while playing around 24 minutes per game. He’s shooting better than 64 percent from the floor and his size and athleticism will pose a huge problem for the undersized Illini.
The real key, however, will be the Zags’ defense and rebounding. Gonzaga has been out-rebounding opponents by 13 boards per game on average and their defense has been able to lock down opposing offenses and force them to take tough shots. Illinois will stretch that defense as they spread the floor and attack the rim off the dribble but will have to really commit to gang-rebounding to try and counteract Gonzaga’s height and rebounding advantage.
With a stingy defense and tough environment, the Bulldogs’ should have the advantage on their home court over Illinois. It will be a hard-fought game but the complete team effort of the Zags’ will pull them through a close test against a very good Illinois basketball team.