Editor's Note: Each Friday morning, Jay Bilas will break down the weekend's top game. Up first is Saturday night's battle of the unbeatens as No. 13 Illinois (9-0) travels to No. 10 Gonzaga (9-0) at 10 ET on ESPN2.
Illinois outlook: The Illini have been one of the pleasant surprises of the young season and have played hard and together under new coach John Groce. Illinois has a terrific trio of guards in Tracy Abrams, D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul and is averaging 11 3-point field goals made per game in its 9-0 start. This team can spread the floor and make you chase it off the 3-point line.
Paul has been outstanding. He is averaging 18 points, 4 assists and 4 rebounds, and he has done a good job of mixing in drives with his perimeter shooting. Paul can score, rebound, defend multiple spots and has been an excellent leader. Richardson has been solid, but he has been largely a 3-point shooter. Once known as a driver, 70 of Richardson’s 90 shots have been behind the arc. As a guard, Richardson leads the Illini in rebounding at 4.7 per game and his clutch corner shot to beat Hawaii was pivotal in providing confidence and momentum to his team, and fueling this great start.
Joseph Bertrand is an outstanding athlete, wing rebounder and defender, and big men Tyler Griffey, Nnanna Egwu and Sam McLaurin provide perimeter shooting, mobility and offensive rebounding, respectively. Griffey has made 17 3s, Egwu provides quality minutes and McLaurin is the best post defender and has almost twice as many offensive rebounds as defensive rebounds.
Gonzaga outlook: The Zags are solid at every position and have great chemistry and balance this season. And Gonzaga has the good fortune of being really good in a year when the big shots are not great. Last season, this team would have won a lot of games, but its chances of reaching the Final Four would have been limited. This season, when there is a glut of good teams but no truly great ones and where overall talent is lacking, Gonzaga may have its best chance to reach its first Final Four.
Guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. could start for almost anyone in America, and both are unafraid and really complete. Those two guards are the primary 3-point threats, accounting for half of Gonzaga’s made 3-point field goals (with over half of their shots coming from behind the arc). While the Zag guards are excellent, the big guys are what sets Gonzaga apart. No other mid-major can boast the size of Gonzaga’s roster, and only a handful of major conference teams can match it.
Coach Mark Few has two different and effective 7-footers in Canada’s Kelly Olynyk and Poland’s Przemek Karnowski. Olynyk is a jump-shooting big man who has bulked up and will now play in the post, and Karnowski is a sure-handed interior player with terrific footwork and a great touch. Sam Dower has had some really good games, but has been inconsistent. Then you have to contend with Elias Harris, Gonzaga’s top scorer and rebounder, a quick and strong matchup problem who can catch, face-up and attack off the bounce.
Gonzaga has six guys who average 9 points or better (from 9.0 ppg to 16.8 ppg), and seven guys who average 7 points or more. This team has size and can rebound and hurt you on the interior. This is not just some little mid-major squad that out-skills you. The Zags can match you in every area.
Illini to watch: Tracy Abrams. The young point guard is tough and steady, and has really improved running the team and leading. Abrams averages 11 points per game and can get by you and get to the rim. And this season he is hitting open shots. Last year, defenses played off of him, but now they have to respect his perimeter shot. Abrams is second to Paul in assists, but has only four more assists than he has turnovers. He must take care of the ball, distribute it and make the right decisions in Spokane. He must also defend without fouling, as Illinois cannot win with him on the bench.
Zag to watch: Kelly Olynyk. Harris is Gonzaga’s best player and Pangos is the player who can get hot and make several 3s in a row (as evidenced by a tremendous performance against Davidson in Orlando), but Olynyk has the biggest upside. A true 7-footer who can step away and shoot it, Olynyk has gotten bigger and stronger and has parked himself in the post more often. He averages 14 points and 7 rebounds in 24 minutes per game, and shoots better than 64 percent from the floor. He is now a more complete player and will be a matchup problem for Illinois. If he is aggressive, Olynyk can have a big game.
Key stat: Rebounding and 3-point shooting. Gonzaga is outrebounding its opponents by almost 13 extra boards per game. That means extra possessions and easier baskets. The Zags are a good offensive rebounding team and have done a nice job of limiting opponents’ second-shot opportunities. The Illini are really going to have to gang-rebound in order to keep up with the Zags on the backboards. Gonzaga is a good 3-point shooting team and its inside-out play can lead to open opportunities for Pangos and Bell. But the key will be Gonzaga’s ability to guard the 3-point line and limit open shots behind the arc by the Illini. They can stretch you and drive you, and Gonzaga has to run Illinois off the line.
X factors: Bertrand and Karnowski. Bertrand is the best athlete on the Illinois roster and is excellent in transition, defensively and on the glass. He is very efficient and can guard multiple positions. If Bertrand comes in and plays his best, it provides Groce with some flexibility. Karnowski is huge, and Illinois has no big bodies to match him. Karnowski averages 9 points and hasn’t been able to knock down his free throws yet, but he has the size and touch to have an impact in this game.
Who wins: Gonzaga is playing at home and has the more complete team. In years past, the Zags were better offensively than defensively. This season, they've been much tougher on the defensive end and on the glass. Gonzaga gets the win in this one, but it should be a close contest.