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Weekend Preview: Gonzaga and Illinois highlight Saturday’s action

Dec 7, 2012, 9:00 AM EDT

Western Carolina Illinois Basketball

Game of the Weekend: Sat. 10:00 pm: No. 13 Illinois at No. 10 Gonzaga (ESPN2)

The consensus heading into this season was that this could end up being the best Gonzaga team that we’ve seen in a few years, and through the first month of the season, the Zags have done nothing but confirm that line of thinking. After going into Pullman and beating Washington State in a thriller on Wednesday night, the Zags are sitting at 9-0 with a title in the Old Spice Classic under their belt.

But Illinois, the Maui champ, is 9-0 as well. Their situation is quite a bit different, however. The Illini didn’t have much in the way of expectation in the preseason, but seeing them have success isn’t that much of a surprise in hindsight. They have quite a bit of talent on the roster, and their poor record last season was as much a result of them quitting as it was an issue of whether they were good enough. With John Groce at the helm, might Illinois be able to turn their fortunes around?

Through nine games, that answer is yes. But that answer has also been given with close wins over mediocre opponents and a dominating run through the Maui that consisted of wins over USC, Chaminade and Butler. The Illini haven’t been tested yet, and they’ll get that in the form of Gonzaga.

Mark Few’s club is balanced, talented and deep. Most importantly, for this game, they have a ton of size up front. Illinois is loaded with good shooters, but their biggest player — Tyler Griffey — averages the fewest rebounds of any starter. Led by Brandon Paul and DJ Richardson, the Illini are going to be able to win some games they shouldn’t win on nights they get hot, but we’ll find out on Saturday night two things: a) how they play on the road, and b) if they can handle a team with size in the paint.

Five more games that you have to watch:

  • Sat. 12:00 pm: Arkansas at No. 3 Michigan (CBS): Michigan and Arkansas have contrasting styles — the Hogs like to get up and down the floor at a breakneck pace while Michigan is known for their more conservative, half court tempo — which makes this an intriguing matchup for hoop heads as it is. Throw in the fact that Michigan looks like they’re in the conversation with Duke and Indiana for the best team in the country and that Arkansas looks like they could end up being a top three team in the SEC, and the matchup gets even juicier. Trey Burke and BJ Young could end up being first-team all-americans together.
  • Sat. 2:00 pm: Colorado at No. 9 Kansas (ESPN2): This is easily the second best game of the weekend. After looking complacent in their first week as a ranked team, Colorado bounced back with a dominating win over rival Colorado State. The Rams are good, but they are no where near the same kind of team as Kansas. The Buffaloes might be good enough to win the Pac-12, which will mean that this old Big 12 rivalry (which was never really a rivalry since Colorado was never really good) should be quite entertaining. This game also features the best individual matchup of the weekend: Spencer Dinwiddie and Ben McLemore.
  • Sat. 6:00 pm: Wisconsin at Marquette (ESPN2): Todd Mayo’s academic issues and Josh Gasser’s ACL have taken some of the luster off of what is one of the best rivalries in all of college basketball. Both of these teams should still make the tournament, and while there will be quite a bit of talent on the floor, both Bo Ryan and Buzz Williams are still trying to figure out how all of their pieces fit together. Expect a battle.
  • Sat. 9:00 pm: Valparaiso at No. 18 New Mexico: Valpo reminds me a bit of Davidson. They have a couple of talented, versatile big men in Ryan Broekhoff and Kevin Van Wjik and a slew of experience up and down their roster. Davidson gave the Lobos all kinds of trouble at the Pit earlier this season. I think Valpo will keep things interesting as well.
  • Sat. 10:30 pm: No. 14 Minnesota at USC (Pac-12): The Trojans have talent on their roster. I don’t think anyone will deny that fact. But a month into the season, they look to be much closer to the team that won just six games last season than to a team capable of making a run at an NCAA tournament bid. Minnesota, on the other hand, has been really good for the first month, and they’ve done it without Trevor Mbakwe at full strength.

And the mid-majors?:

  • Sat. 2:00 pm: Drexel at Princeton
  • Sat. 2:00 pm: Indiana State at Morehead State
  • Sat. 3:05 pm: Murray State at Evansville (ESPN3)
  • Sat. 6:00 pm: Northern Iowa at George Mason (NBCSports)
  • Sun. 4:00 pm: Kent State at Xavier

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

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