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December 6, 2012

Zags a tough matchup for Illinois

Ken Pomeroy's numbers machine predicts No. 13 Illinois has a 15 percent chance of defeating No. 10 Gonzaga in Spokane on Saturday. Pomeroy, an innovator in basketball statistics, injects no opinion or bias into his projections. Like election wunderkind Nate Silver, Pomeroy's analysis is the product of an algorithm full of statistical inputs.

Those statistics - including offensive and defensive efficiency and adjusted tempo - currently rank the Bulldogs (9-0) as the eighth-best team in the country. Illinois, also 9-0, is rated 42nd.

So it makes sense that Pomeroy's numbers, which predict a 76-64 Gonzaga win, project such a small chance of victory for the Illini on the road.

For us who make simple subjective analysis, the Illini's chances of victories appear slim solely because Gonzaga simply poses a tough matchup.

Bulldogs coach Mark Few hasn't missed the NCAA Tournament since taking over for Dan Monson in 1999. Many analysts think this could be his best group of players to date.

Illinois coach John Groce agrees, saying: "The word that comes to me is well-rounded. I watch them and I just don't know if they have a weakness. They have depth. They have skill. They've got athleticism. They play hard. They play together."

Gonzaga proclaims itself "Guard U" because of its rich history of perimeter players, including John Stockton, Matt Santangelo, Dan Dickau, Blake Stepp, Derek Raivio, Jeremy Pargo and Matt Bouldin. And while the tradition of strong guard play continues - Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. both are close to double figure scoreres and Stockton's son, David, is a key role player - the Bulldogs are more ferocious in the post than they've ever been.

Gonzaga averages 41.1 rebounds per game and has a +12.7 rebounding margin. Illinois averages 36.6 rebounds per game, has a rebounding margin of +2.6 and was just outrebounded 41-34 by a Western Carolina team that had one starter taller than 6-foot-8.

Gonzaga has two 7-footers: junior Kelly Olynyk (13.8 points per game, 7.0 rebounds per game) and freshman Przemek Karnoski (9.3 ppg and 3.8 rpg in 14.7 minutes per game). Add 6-foot-8, 240-pound senior star Elias Harris (16.8 ppg, 8.1 rpg) and 6-foot-9, 255-pound junior Sam Dower (9.0 ppg and 5 rpg) and the Bulldogs have one of the best interior rotations in the country.

"You look at the four or five guys they play up front as a collection of 4s and 5s is by far the best collection that we've played against," Illinois coach John Groce said. "Obviously, they have great size. USC had great size. Hawaii had great size. But Gonzaga has more of them and they're deeper.

"I think the depth of those guys and what they do and what they bring to the game in the post and on the glass and defensively effecting shot percentage is certainly the best we've play against to this point."

Illinois will need inspired efforts from developing sophomore center Nnanna Egwu (6.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg) and fifth-year senior Sam McLaurin (4.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg) against the 7-footers and whoever matches up against Harris, who has averaged 16.7 points and 9.6 rebounds in the first three games of the four-game series between Illinois and Gonzaga.

As great of an offensive year as he's having, UI forward Tyler Griffey still isn't known as a reliable defensive player. Neither is sophomore forward Myke Henry. Groce called Harris, who will be looking to even the series 2-2 after last year's loss at Illinois, a "tremendous challenge" for his personnel.

"As I watch him on film, he looks like a pro to me," Groce said. "He's a terrific player. Obviously, he's capable of making shots. ...He's got energy. He's got motor. He's great on the glass. He's good at driving the ball. The thing I admire most about him is he seems to play his best when his best is needed. Great players do that. You can tell he's done that over the course of his career. I think he poses a challenge because he's one of those guys on the offensive end certainly that doesn't have any weaknesses."

Groce could flash more zone to contain Harris and the posts, but that could open the dangerous and efficient Bulldogs guards from beyond the arc, where they shoot 39.2 percent.

"They don't have many weaknesses," Groce said. "I'm concerned about their rebounding. They're great on the glass. They use the three-point shot effectively, especially with Pangos and Bell."

Yet, Illinois has an advantage on the perimeter: athleticism and size. The burden lies on Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson, Tracy Abrams and Joseph Bertrand to pressure the smaller and slower Gonzaga guards and make it difficult to get the ball to their talented bigs.

The talented Illini wings also will have the advantage on offense. Gonzaga's perimeter defense has holes (Washington State made 10 of 27 threes in Wednesday's 71-69 home loss to the Zags), and Illinois can exploit it further. The Illini, which lead the country with 10.8 threes per game, just need to make the shots when they have them. Aggressive drives to the basket also will be key for Illini to establish an in-the-paint game. It could also force the Bulldogs into foul trouble.

The matchup doesn't look favorable for the Illini. KenPom's statistics confirm it. The eye test confirms it.

But Illinois looked like world beaters at the Maui Invitational, cruising to a tournament title. The return home wasn't as smooth as the Illini battled for wins over Gardner Webb, Georgia Tech and Western Carolina.

If the Maui Illini return, they can prove the statistics and our eyes wrong. If the Assembly Hall Illini show up to Spokane, it could get ugly.

"It's a game of basketball and you got to be able to play it whether it's home, away or neutral," Groce said. "We got to be unconditional in that regard. I think our guys are looking forward to the challenge. We've got to play with that same toughness, that same togetherness, that same energy level (we had in Maui) on Saturday. If we don't do that, then the X's and O's won't matter and we won't have a chance. We've got to get our toughness, our togetherness, our energy level back that we had during that tournament."

Jeremy Werner is the co-host and Illinois reporter for the "Tay and J Show," which airs weekdays 3-6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 93.5, 95.3 in Champaign-Urbana and streams online at www.espncu.com. You can contact him at jeremy@espncu.com or follow him on Twitter @WernerESPNCU

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