CHAMPAIGN — Illinois ascended to 13th in the latest Associated Press poll and is unbeaten in nine games. Yet, there are many around the country who aren’t believers in John Groce’s first Illini squad.
A win Saturday against 10th-ranked Gonzaga, which is 9-0 for the first time in program history, would go a long way in quieting some of those. The upcoming showdown in Spokane, Wash., will be Illinois’ toughest test to date. And for the Illini, it will be the season’s biggest game to date, but not because it will shape any outsider’s opinion.
“I think every game is a measuring stick. This, obviously, is the next game on the schedule, so it’s the most important,” Groce said. “Our season and what we’re trying to do here at Illinois is never defined by just one game. It’s a much bigger picture than that.”
Regardless of how the season played out leading up to the Gonzaga game, this one always was viewed as the marquee game on the schedule to this point, an important game for Illinois. It’s turned into a game of national significance with Illinois winning the Maui Invitational and entering unbeaten and ranked in the Top 15 in the country.
Based on how last season ended for the Illini, they’re ahead of schedule while adjusting to a new coaching staff and system.
“We kind of liked flying under the radar. That’s not happening; we can’t control the rankings,” senior Tyler Griffey said. “All we can control is how ready we’ll be to play no matter what time it is, where it’s at or who we’re playing.”
National basketball experts pegged this group of Bulldogs as one of coach Mark Few’s best teams, one with the talent to reach the Final Four. It’s as well-rounded a team as Illinois will have faced.
Six different players have led Gonzaga in scoring in its nine games. Versatile forward Elias Harris leads the way, averaging close to 17 points and eight rebounds per game. Seven-footer Kelly Olynyk averages 14 points and seven boards.
“I watch them and I just don’t know if they have a weakness. They’ve got depth, they’ve got skill, they’ve got athleticism, they play hard, they play together,” Groce said. “Our guys are excited, and we will have a chance to learn a lot about our team because they’re such a great basketball team. If you make errors and mistakes, great basketball teams take advantage of that and they expose you. Our system’s going to be tested at a high level. I’m looking forward to seeing where our system is at this juncture against such a quality basketball team.”