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Terrific match up in the Windy City: Zags vs. Fighting Illini

While the match up between Gonzaga and Illinois is tantalizing because of the talent that will be on the court, this game carries an extra sense of importance for the Zags. After this game concludes, Gonzaga will do their annual fade from the national spotlight with WCC play set to begin. Therefore, the match up on Saturday will be the last image that much of the college basketball world will have of this Gonzaga team until the brackets are announced in two months. If Gonzaga can go to Chicago and pull off this impressive victory, the Zags will own two wins against probable top 4 teams in the Big 10. The non-conference schedule will also have wins over potential NCAA Tournament teams like Cincinnati, Washington St., and Oklahoma. This type of resume combined with an undefeated or 13-1 record in the WCC screams potential 4/5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. So while some people may be viewing this game as a fun match up, I tend to think this is one of the most important games that Gonzaga will play all season.(quick note: I do realize that this team will play Memphis in February, but the Tigers don't have any marquee wins, and I'm hard-pressed to believe that it will be an NCAA quality type of win)

The Fighting Illini are a talented young team that owns some impressive victories over teams like Clemson and Vanderbilt. However, much like we have seen with this Gonzaga team, Illinois is prone to playing down to opponents and losing to teams that it should handle (ex. Bradley and Georgia). Mike Davis is one of the most talented big men in the country, averaging a double-double with 12.9 points and 10.4 boards. Davis is tough to guard when he is focused and involved in the game, but he does have the reputation of sometimes getting lost in the shuffle and not asserting himself. I don't think Rob has the quickness to match up with Davis, so I would expect Elias and Bol to spend lots of time on him. I also wouldn't mind seeing Coach Few use Manny Arop on Davis, because I think he has the length and aggressiveness to really bother him despite the clear height advantage Davis owns.

Steven Gray will almost certainly match up with Demetri McCamey. McCamey leads Illinois in scoring and is one of the better guards in the  Big 10. However, Gray has proven to be an excellent defender over the course of this season, and I think he will do a good job of taking advantage of his athleticism and size to slow down McCamey. Matt Bouldin and Demetri Goodson will likely guard the pair of freshman guards that start for Illinois. Both D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul have great potential, but both are still going through some freshman growing pains.

One of the keys to Gonzaga pulling out this game is to establish a quick tempo and really feed the ball to Elias. There is no one on the Illinois team that matches up comfortably with Harris, because none of their bigs can guard Elias off the dribble or on the perimeter. If this team can get out and run at a quick tempo, it could allow for Meech to really attack the lane and then kick to open shooters like Bol, Steven, and Matt. I think this Illinois team is still one year away from being a true contender in the Big 10, but this would be a huge win to add another likely NCAA Tournament team to the resume. Although it will be close in the first half, I expect Gonzaga to open up a comfortable lead in the second half and leave Chicago with the 77-64 win.