Here's a look at Illinois at Gonzaga (ESPN, 5:15 p.m. ET):
What Illinois does well: The Illini fill their tanks on the defensive end and man-to-man defense has been the consistent staple for Bruce Weber’s team. Illinois has not been incredibly efficient on the offensive end, although the Illini have had some really good moments and stretches, but the defense has been there every night. Illinois is 7-1 against a good slate of opponents and has held its foes to 40 percent from the field and just 28 percent from behind the arc. Illinois is turning over its opponents at a rate of 17 per game for a 3.3 turnover margin in its favor. But the Illini are fouling more than their opponents. It is not that Illinois fouls too much. Rather, the Illini do not put themselves at the line as often as they must to beat the best teams. Illinois is getting outshot and outscored from the free throw line and that cannot continue if Illinois expects to win the Big Ten. The free throw battle is among the most important battles in basketball and the best teams consistently win that battle. Illinois has to attack and put teams in position to foul and get to the line, which is the most efficient place from which to score in a basketball game. Illinois has nice balance, with six guys averaging 9 points or more (including sophomore D.J. Richardson, the Illini’s top 3-point shooter).
Where Illinois can get hurt: On the glass. Illinois is not a big, strong, physical team. Rather, the Illini big men are more finesse players with skill and athleticism. Mike Tisdale is a pick-and-pop big man and Mike Davis is a quick jumper that can run, but neither has a great comfort level banging around in a grinding affair. And the Big Ten is a grinding league. At the 2K Sports Classic in New York, Illinois gave up a ton of second shots and extra possessions. If you go hard to the glass, you should expect to be able to compete on the backboards with Illinois.
What Gonzaga does well: The Zags have a very good offensive team and a big team. Mark Few always runs good offense to get the ball to his most effective scorers in their best operating areas, and his teams run his set plays the way he wants them to. This year, Gonzaga has taken advantage of its size and is playing some “high/low” to exploit the height advantage it has against many of its opponents. Gonzaga shoots 50 percent from the floor and is outrebounding opponents by almost eight per game and gets to the free throw line more than 22 times per game. The Zags can score, and they can outscore you.
Where Gonzaga can get hurt: The knock on Gonzaga has been a perceived lack of physical play. However, I am not sure that is fair. The Zags do a really good job on the glass, and work hard on rebounding and playing good, hard-nosed defense. I think that Gonzaga has more issues with ball security. The Zags essentially have an even turnover margin, and that could be a real problem if Gonzaga doesn’t handle the ball against Illinois’ pressure.
Gonzaga’s best player: Steven Gray. This kid is playing with a sense of urgency that only a senior can exhibit, and he is fighting on both ends on every possession. Gray is leading the Zags in scoring, 3-pointers made, assists and steals, averaging 21 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists per game. He can shoot it from deep, he works hard for shots, and he is willing to guard on the other end. Gray, who scored 20 points against Illinois last year, is having a great senior season.
Gonzaga’s glue guy: Elias Harris. The sophomore jumping jack from Germany has been hobbled by an ankle injury he suffered in a rebounding drill in practice. Harris is one of the best players in the country and one of the toughest matchups, but he hasn’t yet been healthy. When he is, he can be the best player on the floor in almost any game the Zags play.
Gonzaga’s wild card: Demetri Goodson. The speedy point guard should have a question mark on his uniform instead of a number, because no guard in the West has been questioned more than Goodson. He has really good speed and does a good job of putting pressure on the ball on the defensive end. On the offensive end, Goodson gets his team into its offense and while he’s not a high-volume assist man, he averages just under four assists and has a 4-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Goodson cannot turn the ball over against the Illinois pressure. Last year, Gonzaga turned the ball over 21 times against Illinois, and won in overtime.
Illinois’ best player: Demetri McCamey. A big, strong point guard, McCamey leads the Illini in scoring and assists for the second straight season. McCamey has improved his efficiency, averaging 15 points and 7.7 assists, with a near 4-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. McCamey is shooting 52 percent from the field, 52 percent from 3-point range and 67 percent from the line (although he is only getting there three times per game).
Illinois’ glue guy: Tisdale. He’s a skilled big man that can post and score over you with a solid menu of post moves, or he can step out and knock in a trail jumper or a shot off of a pick-and-pop. Tisdale leads the team in rebounding and grabs 3 offensive rebounds per game.
Illinois’ wild card: Brandon Paul. He is back in the starting lineup and serves as a backup point to McCamey. He has emerged as a perimeter shooting threat that can help spread the floor and is able to attack off the bounce. Very athletic and very streaky, Paul can hit five in a row or miss five in a row, but he leads the team in steals and is one of five Illini averaging double figures on the season.
Where the game turns: Both teams play high-level opponents, so this game will not intimidate either team. Gonzaga is bigger and stronger than it looks, and might very well be bigger than Illinois. The key point in the game will be rebounding. Illinois does not have the bulk of Gonzaga, but it is long and athletic and has been challenged to be more physical. Last year, Gonzaga outrebounded the Illini by seven and lost the turnover battle by an astounding 11 -- with 21 turnovers to Illinois’ 10. Also, this is the type of game that turns on “hustle stats” like charges, deflections, and loose balls. The team that wins the hustle battle will go a long way to winning the war.
Who wins: Illinois in a close one, especially if Elias Harris is not 100 percent yet.