SEATTLE – Illinois men’s basketball coach Bruce Weber was addressing the importance of Saturday’s Battle in Seattle showdown against Gonzaga at KeyArena, but his thoughts also hold true from a Bulldogs’ perspective.
“If you want to be a high seed at the end of the year, these are the kind of games you have to win,” Weber said. “Ohio State has won at Florida and at Florida State. Those are nice marks on their resume. This would be a great opportunity for us to get one on our resume.”
Same thing for Gonzaga (4-2), which lost two previous games against ranked foes (San Diego State and Kansas State). The 20th-ranked Illini (7-1) are coming off a nice win over North Carolina, but they dropped their only contest with a ranked opponent (Texas).
These teams waged a wild game last season at the United Center in Chicago. The Bulldogs bolted in front 32-11, but they trailed 66-58 midway through the second half. The Zags reclaimed the lead late on an Elias Harris’ basket and Steven Gray’s two free throws. Illinois made a 3-pointer to force overtime, where Harris hit the game-winner in the lane.
“It was a heck of a win because they were a good team and they had a couple of heart-breaking losses that ended up keeping them out of the tournament,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “They have everybody back and they’re a year older, I really think they’re a top 10 type squad.”
Both teams return most of their primary players. Illinois is led by senior Demetri McCamey, a sturdy 6-foot-3, 200-pound point guard who is averaging 15.3 points and 7.8 assists. McCamey and Kansas State’s Jacob Pullen, who torched GU for 18 points and four assists, are cousins.
“He reminds me of (former Illinois standout) Deron Williams,” Few said. “He’s shooting it, pushing it and just playing great.”
McCamey is surrounded by a veteran cast, including five players averaging between 9 and 11.6 points. Senior forward Mike Davis and senior center Mike Tisdale combine for 22.2 points and 14.3 rebounds per game. McCamey and sophomore D.J. Richardson are both connecting on 51 percent of their 3-pointers.
Key newcomers including McDonald’s All-American Jereme Richmond, a 6-7 wing who is averaging 9 points, and 7-footer Meyers Leonard, who was ranked as a Top 20 recruit by one scouting service.
“They have a lot of offensive firepower,” Few said.
Weber worries about GU’s offensive arsenal, led by Gray, who is averaging 21.7 points and 5.5 assists. Center Robert Sacre and Harris each scored 19 points versus Illinois a year ago. Harris, who is expected to play despite a sore Achilles tendon, also had 16 rebounds.
“Gray is strong, athletic, very versatile,” Weber said. “They do a lot of stuff for him and probably the best thing they have is Sacre screening for him. He’s such a good screener, so big and wide, and he knows it’s his job to get him open.
“I think some different guys, whether it’s Billy (Cole), Jereme, Brandon (Paul) or D.J. (will guard Gray), but some are better on the ball, some are better chasing him off screens and some are better guarding him in the post. That’s going to be the challenge.”