SEATTLE - According to the Associated Press rankings, Saturday's eighth annual Battle in Seattle was a matchup of equals. The host Gonzaga Bulldogs entered the week ranked 23rd, just behind the 21st-ranked visiting Illinois Fighting Illini. KenPom.com told a different story, putting Illinois just outside the top 10 on the strength of a 7-1 start including wins over Maryland and North Carolina. Meanwhile, KenPom.com had Gonzaga ranked 43rd, making the Illini the favorite despite the far longer trip to Seattle and a heavy Bulldog lean to the nearly 15,000 in attendance at KeyArena.
As it turned out, Illinois was never threatened in the second half, outclassing Gonzaga in a statement victory that demonstrated the Illini's potential
Illinois certainly benefited from a favorable run from beyond the three-point line. The second half started with 7'0" center Mike Tisdale popping behind the arc to knock down a triple on the Illini's first possession. That proved prophetic. Over the first nine minutes of the half, Illinois would make nine three-pointers in 11 attempts. That's tough to do in an empty gym. While Tisdale is known for his accurate shooting from the perimeter, the triple is a newfound weapon for him. He entered Saturday having made just 10 three-pointers in his four-year career before making three in a span of five minutes.
At the same time, the open looks were a product of the Illini's execution. When the Zags briefly switched to a 3-2 zone defense, Illinois wasted no time working the ball in the corner to senior forward Bill Cole, a specialist who drained open three attempts on back-to-back possessions. After Gonzaga coach Mark Few responded by returning to the man-to-man, the Illini calmly worked the pick-and-pop game to set up guards Demetri McCamey and D.J. Richardson beyond the arc.
Playing in what had the potential to be a hostile setting--despite the presence of a large contingent wearing orange that made plenty of noise itself in the second half--Illinois was patient and precise in its half-court offense. The team committed just six turnovers and the Bulldogs did not come up with a single steal all game long. That's to the credit of McCamey, who handed out seven assists against just two turnovers, though the team took the lead for good with McCamey on the bench in foul trouble late in the first half.
The Illini's execution did break down during one brief stretch. Three turnovers in four possessions aided a 10-0 Zags run that sliced Illinois' lead in half with five minutes remaining. Bruce Weber called timeout with five on the shot clock and the offense in trouble. After Weber settled things down, Richardson came out of the break by scoring on a drive. The score halted the run, and the Bulldogs would not score for nearly four minutes.
All afternoon long, Gonzaga had a difficulty time finding room to operate against the Illini's aggressive defense and their size in the paint. Things might have been somewhat different had Zags star Elias Harris been 100 percent. Coming off the bench after missing a win over Eastern Washington with a right Achilles strain, Harris was limited to 24 minutes. Effective in the first half, scoring 12 points, Harris was held scoreless after the break and was essentially a non-factor.
That left Gonzaga to rely on center Robert Sacre, who was able to score in the post at times and teamed with Harris to take advantage of second chances when Illinois' help defenders were out of rebounding position. The Bulldogs' perimeter players, however, found few openings. Aside from scoring five points during the 10-0 run, Steven Gray was virtually invisible. He missed nine of his 12 shot attempts. Foul trouble hampered point guard Demetri Goodson, who picked up two quick fouls and was on the bench with four during the second half. Goodson was initially replaced by an overmatched David Stockton, who was unable to even get Gonzaga into its sets at times as he struggled with pressure.
Beyond that, the Zags were unable to create the same kind of looks beyond the arc on which the Illini were feasting at the other end. Gonzaga shot 3-of-16 from three-point range, a big reason the team scored less than a point per possession.
Illinois has one more test before Big Ten play, facing Missouri in St. Louis on Dec. 22. While it's too soon to say whether this Illini squad is better than the 2006 incarnation that lost in the second round as a No. 4 seed, performances like Saturday's go a long way toward demonstrating that Illinois has the potential to reach the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005's run to the title game.
The Zags, meanwhile, find themselves an uncharacteristic 4-3 thus far. That record might not improve quickly. KenPom.com has Gonzaga as the underdog in three of its next four games, which see them visit Washington State and Notre Dame and play Baylor in Dallas (with a breather against NAIA foe Lewis-Clark State College in the midst of that stretch). All three of the Bulldogs' losses have come to likely Tournament teams, but Gonzaga has now been beaten soundly by both Illinois and Kansas State in addition to losing at home to San Diego State. Right now, the Zags are looking like a one-and-done team come March.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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