CHAMPAIGN — Until Wednesday night, there was only one thing missing from Gonzaga’s very impressive 8-0 basketball start.
And that’s a glimpse of how the team might perform in a truly close game.
The Zags had mauled West Virginia by 34. They’d destroyed Oklahoma by 25. The closest call they faced was an eight-point victory against Clemson during a Thanksgiving tournament in Florida.
But that changed on Wednesday when 10th-ranked Gonzaga found itself locked in a tie game in front of a packed, hostile crowd at Washington State’s home gym 75 miles away in Pullman, Wash.
With seconds to play, the game was tied 69-69 and the ball landed in the hands of Gonzaga guard Kevin Pangos.
It had not been a great night for Pangos, a sophomore from Canada. Until that moment, he was 1-for-11 from the field.
But Pangos decided to take the ball hard to the rim, and his end-to-end drive resulted in a layup with two seconds to play, giving Gonzaga a 71-69 victory. The 9-0 start is its best in school history.
So No. 13 Illinois will be flying west to confront an undefeated team that has now been battle tested, a team coach John Groce described Thursday as the most talented and complete group the Illini will have faced.
“The word that comes to mind is well-rounded,” Groce said in describing Gonzaga. “I watch them and I just don’t know if they have any weakness. They have depth, skill, athleticism, they play hard, they play together and from a statistical perspective, they’re the second best team in the country when you compile all the numbers offensively and defensively.”
Groce paused and then said, “I can see why potentially people say this may be the best team he’s had.”
“He,” of course, is 49-year-old coach Mark Few, who has brushed aside countless coaching overtures and seems content to keep cranking out winner after winner at Gonzaga.
Mark Few pieces together mish-mash rosters by recruiting Canada, Europe and the Western states while blending in assorted others. His current roster shows two players from Canada, one from Poland, one from Germany, one from the Ivory Coast, three from Washington, one each from Oregon, Idaho, Minnesota, Tennessee and Massachusetts.
It’s a team with size, strength, guards and post players. And it has depth.
“I’m concerned about their rebounding because they are great on the glass,” Groce said.
Not many teams enjoy Gonzaga’s depth and strength along the front line.
The starting center is Sam Dower, a 6-foot-9, 255-pounder who has taken over for Robert Sacre, the 7-footer who was outplayed by Meyers Leonard a year ago when the Illini beat Gonzaga 82-75 at Assembly Hall. Leonard scored 21 points on 9-of-11 shooting while Sacre finished with 16.
Both players are now in the NBA, Leonard with the Portland Trailblazers and Sacre with the Los Angeles Lakers.
When Dower goes to the bench, or if Few wants to get bigger, he turns to redshirt junior Kelly Olynyk, a 7-foot, 238-pound Canadian, or Przemek Karnowski, a 7-1, 305-pound freshman from Poland.
Against Washington State, Olynyk didn’t have a point in the first half. But he scored 22 in the second half to help Gonzaga remain unbeaten.
Olynyk redshirted last season to get stronger and Few said that decision is paying off.
“He couldn’t have made some of those shots a year ago,” Few said after Wednesday’s victory.
Groce knows Illinois did not play particularly well in Tuesday’s 72-64 victory against Western Carolina. But he’s cracking the whip in practice Thursday and again today before boarding a flight to Washington.
One thing Illinois has is a measure of confidence.
Seniors Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey mentioned that before this season’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge game against Georgia Tech. “We’ve never lost in the Challenge,” Paul quickly pointed out. And after winning again a week ago, the seniors can now claim victories against Clemson, North Carolina, Maryland and the Yellowjackets.
They’ll call on that same kind of confidence Saturday by remembering how Illinois held off Gonzaga last December at home. The game was an upset because Illinois was unranked and Gonzaga came to Champaign ranked No. 19.
Richardson scored 19 and had four 3-pointers. Paul had 13 and five assists. And Griffey added eight points
Groce said Illinois will have to be super-sharp against the Zags.
“Everyone has to be an all-star in their role on Saturday,” he said.