By Jim Meehan The Spokesman-Review
SPOKANE — First things first.
Gonzaga is 9-0 for the first time as a Division I men’s basketball program. GU won its first road game of the season Wednesday, edging Washington State 71-69. The Bulldogs now face their first ranked opponent when No. 13 Illinois visits the McCarthey Athletic Center tonight.
“We’ve had a great series of games with them,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few, who teams are 1-2 versus the Illini the past three seasons. “I had a chance to watch them in Maui and they looked unbelievable over there. They can really shoot it, they’re athletic and can apply a lot of pressure.”
“The word that comes to me is well-rounded,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “I watch them and I just don’t know if they have a weakness.”
After Wednesday’s games, just 18 Division I teams have zeroes in the loss column. In their most recent outings, the 10th-ranked Bulldogs (9-0) weren’t sharp against WSU and the Illini (9-0) pulled away late to defeat Western Carolina (3-6).
This isn’t the first time these teams have squared off as unbeatens. Gonzaga dropped its first game and Illinois improved to 8-0 with an 82-75 win last season in Champaign, Ill. Illinois hired Groce after the 2012 team lost 12 of its last 14 under former coach Bruce Weber.
“The biggest thing was to create a culture of toughness and togetherness,” Groce said. “I certainly felt like we took a step backward (against Western Carolina) in that regard, but that’s been our calling card.”
The Illini made at least 10 3-pointers in their first six games and buried 14 against Georgia Tech, the most in a game since 2005. They lead the nation in 3s made (97) and 3s per game (10.8). Gonzaga was outstanding defending 3-pointers in its first six games, but its last three foes (Lewis-Clark State, Pacific and WSU) have combined to go 28-for-68 (41.2 percent).
Senior guards Brandon Paul (17.8 points-per-game average) and D.J. Richardson (12.3) have combined for 48 3-pointers. Sophomore guard Tracy Abrams (11.3 points) and senior forward Tyler Griffey (10.4 ppg, 51.5 percent 3-pointers) also average in double figures.
Paul and Richardson teamed up for five 3s, 32 points, six rebounds and six assists in last year’s win over Gonzaga. Center Meyers Leonard, now with the Portland Trail Blazers, had 21 points.
“They were really strong guards, they’re one year more experienced and their team revolves around them more this year,” said Gonzaga guard Kevin Pangos, who hit the game-winner versus WSU with 2.2 seconds remaining. “We’ll game plan for them. It should be a fun game.”