CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – As of Friday, there are 21 undefeated NCAA Division I men’s basketball programs. That list will lose one member when Gonzaga and Illinois collide Saturday at Assembly Hall.
The 19th-ranked Bulldogs (5-0), off to their best start since 2009, face a challenging first road trip against the Illini, who are 7-0 for the first time since winning 15 straight to open the 2007 season.
“It’s time for that,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said of his young crew playing on the road. “Let’s see what happens. We have to keep our poise and stay together. I told our guys this team has great chemistry but now we have to have great chemistry under fire.”
Illinois lost four starters and five of its top seven scorers from last year’s 20-14 squad but retooled quickly, courtesy of three consecutive top 15 recruiting classes and former Bradley guard Sam Maniscalco.
Mansicalco, who moved into the starting lineup in the third game, averages a team-leading 13.3 points. He’s joined in the backcourt by D.J. Richardson (12.4 points), the MVP of the Cancun Challenge, and Brandon Paul (9.1 points, 2.3 assists). Meyers Leonard, a 7-foot-1 center who played on the USA U-19 team this summer, contributes 12.3 points and 6.7 rebounds.
Illinois, 108-23 at Assembly Hall under coach Bruce Weber, has won 22 straight non-conference home games.
“I don’t think it’s an environment thing,” Gonzaga center Robert Sacre said. “It’s more of who we are playing.”
Illinois has limited opponents to 35.7-percent shooting from the field. Lipscomb’s 64 points is the highest output against the Illini, who outscored Maryland 40-27 in the second half en route to a 71-62 victory Tuesday in their first road game. Maniscalco scored 24 points and Paul added 17.
“In their building, their defense can be very pressure oriented and really tough,” Few said. “They also space you out and shoot 3s. The 7-footer is a nice athlete and Richardson is really playing well.”
The Bulldogs have played outside of Spokane once, facing Hawaii in Vancouver, Sacre’s home town.
“We have a resilient bunch, a bunch of tough guys and hopefully we won’t be rattled at all,” sophomore guard David Stockton said.
Gonzaga lost to Illinois 73-61 last season in the Battle in Seattle. Of the Illini’s first 11 baskets in the second half, 10 were 3-pointers.