The Gonzaga Bulldogs open up the first round of the Maui Invitational with a contest against the Illinois Fighting Illini.
The Zags are coming off another good win over the Texas A&M Aggies. Zach Norvell scored 22 points in the contest and Josh Perkins dished out his 500th career assist.
Illiinois is coming off an upset by the Georgetown Hoyas at home. Georgetown outscored Illinois by ten points in the final ten minutes to pull off an 88-80 win.
The Zags and Illinois haven’t met since 2012, when Illinois 85-74 upset in Spokane. You might recognize this young fellow from the game.
Meet the opponent
Illinois Fighting Illini, KenPom #76, 1-1
It is hard to say much more about Illinois without knowing the outcome of this:
#illini Underwood: Trent Frazier traveled with the team to Hawaii and is still going through concussion protocol. "Once you're in that process, there's no decisions. It's just a matter of how he progresses through that." Day by day.— Jeremy Werner (@JWerner247) November 16, 2018
Frazier suffered a concussion at the end of practice earlier this week. Say what you will about the NCAA, but it takes traumatic brain injuries a bit more seriously than most sports institutions. Frazier is the starting point guard for the Fighting Illini, and that is a hard position to replace on the fly. Junior guard Andres Feliz tried to fill the role against Georgetown and finished with five turnovers. Not the best sign.
Luckily, freshman guard Ayo Dosunmu is there to pick up the offensive slack. Dosunmu is a four-star guard out of Chicago and the top ranked player from Illinois in the class of 2018. Through two games, he has showed every bit of that promise, averaging 21.5 points and shooting a blistering 71 percent from three-point range.
Illinois is going to be quite the different team from Texas A&M. The Fighting Illini do not have a strong interior presence, and instead rely on an aggressive defensive push focused on forcing turnovers. Their defense has the third highest steal percentage and second highest turnover percentage in the nation.
What to watch out for
The pressure is on Josh Perkins.
Through three games, Gonzaga’s senior point guard has been absolutely fantastic. Through three games, Perkins is averaging 11 points, 8.3 assists, and just one turnover per game. His normally reliable three point shot hasn’t materialized quite yet, but he has more than made up for it by being an efficient floor general. Perkins is the only player in the NCAA with at least 25 assists on the year and less than three turnovers.
That said, Illinois will pressure the hell out of the ball. Perkins has shown tendencies to struggle sometimes under those levels of pressure. At the same time, he has also excelled. Gonzaga will go as far as Perkins can lead them this year, and this will be a solid test for his senior leadership skills.
Can Illinois stop the power combo of Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke?
The combination of Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura sometimes almost makes me forget that Killian Tillie should be in the starting five. That is how well they operate together. Hachimura is crafty as all get out at getting his buckets, and the Zags haven’t seen a player as athletic in Clarke in quite awhile. Clarke, in particular, has been devastating in transition, and Hachimura has been wildly efficient in spot-up plays, shooting 4-for-4 on dribble jumpers and 10-for-13 on drives to the hoop.
Don’t look past the Fighting Illini.
The matchup everyone wants is Duke. Illinois is probably the worst team in this field. Considering how good the Maui Invitational bracket is, that really isn’t saying much, however. The Fighting Illini will provide enough of a different challenge for the Zags that this game should stay competitive for quite some time, but I also wouldn’t be surprised to watch Gonzaga take hold early and never relinquish the pressure. Either way, this will be a good head case test for these Gonzaga Bulldogs and their ability to remain focused on the game at hand.