Gonzaga’s size gives them advantage over Illinois in clash of unbeatens

The paths Illinois and Gonzaga have traveled this season are nearly identical.


Both teams began the season unranked. Both teams dominated an early season tournament — the Maui Invitational for Illinois and the Old Spice Classic for Gonzaga — against mediocre major conference opponents. Both are 9-0, and both are now ranked among the top-15 teams in the country; the Illini at No. 13 and the Zags at No. 10.

And yet, when the two teams collide Saturday in Spokane, Wash., Gonzaga will be a favorite to remain undefeated — justifiably so for two reasons.

The Zags boast one of the best home-court advantages in the country, compiling a 92-7 record at the McCarthey Athletic Center since it was opened in 2004. On Monday’s episode of Illini Drive, guest caller and sports editor of the Gonzaga student paper Drew Baldassarre said students had already started camping out in tents outside the arena for Saturday’s game.

This will be just the second true road game of the season for Illinois, the first having come at Hawaii, but this will be a whole different animal. The Illini haven’t won a road game against a truly elite opponent in years, with the February 2010 win at Wisconsin standing out as the last memorable road victory.

But the home court isn’t what ultimately will likely lead to Illinois’ downfall Saturday night. The biggest (in the most literal sense of the word) advantage the Zags will have over the Illini is size.

Former Zag Robert Sacre is gone, departed to the NBA to fill the Adam Morrison role of Los Angeles Lakers team cheerleader. But the hole left by his departure has been filled, and then some. Gonzaga head coach Mark Few will roll out a frontcourt lineup that utilizes the services of two 7-footers — redshirt junior Kelly Olynyk and freshman Przemek Karnowski, a 305-pound mammoth from Poland. Also at Few’s disposal is Sam Dower, a 6-foot-9, 255-pound inside-outside threat, and Elias Harris, who, at 6-foot-8, 239 pounds, is the Zags’ leading scorer (16.8 points per game) and rebounder (8.1 per game).

A quick perusal of Illinois’ roster reveals a startling disparity: only one center in 6-foot-11 Nnanna Egwu, whose flirtations with foul trouble are often fast and furious, and only one player over 240 pounds, little-used forward Ibby Djimde. The Illini struggled against the frontcourts of Georgia Tech and Western Carolina the last two games, allowing 14 points to the Yellow Jackets’ Kammeon Holsey and 17 points to 6-foot-4 Catamount forward Preston Ross. Western Carolina also snagged 18 offensive rebounds in a near upset bid Tuesday, despite its tallest player standing just 6-foot-8.

Illinois head coach John Groce said during Thursday’s weekly teleconference that he was concerned about Gonzaga’s rebounding, but that’s probably an understatement. The Zags have outrebounded opponents 370 to 256 through nine games and will continue to dominate the glass against the Illini, which in turn, will hamper Illinois’ ability to get out in transition.

The Illini perimeter players will have to channel their inner Jesus Shuttlesworth and shoot lights out to stay in the game, and while they have the ability, that’s a long shot in such raucous environment.

Groce has said since the beginning of the year that, at some point, his team would get punched in the mouth. The Illini took some jabs from Hawaii and Gardner-Webb but got off the mat in time to win on last-second shots. But Gonzaga throws haymakers, the types of punches meant to keep teams down for the count. 

Daniel is a senior in Media. He can be reached at millerm1@dailyillini.com and on Twitter @danielmillerc.