The only game on Saturday to pit nationally- ranked teams against each other has No. 10 Gonzaga entertaining No. 13 Illinois.
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 Kentucky.
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.