CHAMPAIGN — Not long after No. 13 Illinois pulled away for a 72-64 win against Western Carolina, Tracy Abrams was asked for his opinion about 10th-ranked Gonzaga, Illinois’ opponent Saturday.
“I don’t know nothing,” was the sophomore point guard’s response.
The answer didn’t reveal much, but it was perfect for Illinois coach John Groce.
“Good answer,” the first-year UI coach shot back.
Watching the sluggish performance Tuesday against the Catamounts (3-6), it could be assumed the Illini (9-0) were looking ahead to Saturday’s showdown with the Bulldogs on the road. But other than past experience — Illinois has beaten Gonzaga in two straight games after losing to it at the United Center when the current senior class were freshmen — the players hadn’t thought much about the trip to Spokane until after the clock expired Tuesday.
“They kind of owe us revenge from last year. They’re talented,” senior D.J. Richardson (13 points) said.
What they do know is they’ll have to be better against Mark Few’s team than they were against Western Carolina.
Illinois was outrebounded 41-34, giving up 14 second-chance points and 14 points in the paint.
“We’ve got to get better, and we will. We’ve played better, we’re better than what we played and we’ll get it figured out,” Groce said.
The Illini got a team-high 14 points from Brandon Paul and 10 from Abrams, who also added five rebounds, three assists and no turnovers. But in the toughness category, they felt like that battle was lost, and that won’t cut it against the Zags.
Illinois vaulted up to No. 13 in the polls this week, yet there are still plenty of doubters who claim the competition has been less than stellar.
Saturday’s contest is an opportunity to find out where the Illini stand in the college basketball world.
“Our guys will be up for the challenge. It’s exciting, it’s an exciting challenge,” Groce said. “We learn from every circumstance that’s thrown our way and then we move. That’s what we’ll do with this one and move in a direction to make sure we’re ready for Saturday’s game.”
Just the facts
Western Carolina tied the game at 54 with 5:50 remaining, but D.J. Richardson and Tracy Abrams saved the day, making big plays down the stretch to help the Illini remain unbeaten ahead of Saturday’s showdown at Gonzaga.
What the Illini said
“I can’t walk in that locker room and tell them how great we played because we didn’t play very well. We were able to win the game because these guys made plays.” — coach John Groce
What the Catamounts said
“I like Illinois’ basketball team, I really do. I think they have a lot of pieces to the puzzle. Their guards are men, the kind of guards you have to have in the Big Ten.” — coach Larry Hunter
What it means
Despite a couple of scares this season, the Illini have now won 20 straight home games against nonconference opponents dating back to the senior class’ freshman season. The last loss was to Dayton in the 2010 NIT quarterfinals.
Illinois’ biggest test of the season at No. 10 Gonzaga on Saturday. Illinois will look to end a six-game road losing streak against Top 10 opponents during their first trip to The Kennel.