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Fantasy College Basketball Game of the Week: Illinois at Gonzaga

The first two months of the college basketball schedule are much akin to preseason in professional sports. There will be a few big games, which I have tried to highlight in this space, but the games are mostly tune ups for the conference slate. There were some brutal blowout yesterday include Kansas crushing Colorado and Cincinnati putting the hurt on Maryland-Eastern Shore, but we were also treated to an excellent game between Illinois and Gonzaga in Spokane.

On paper, where these games are not played, Gonzaga figured to have a huge advantage in the frontcourt with their waves of seven footers and top forward Elias Harris. The Zag strategy was to force the ball inside and take advantage of their height. Even though the Illini do not have much size, they were very active in the passing lanes and kept Gonzaga from getting too many easy baskets. Tyler Griffey, Nnanna Egwu, and Sam McLauran used up 14 fouls between them and were able to disrupt the Bulldog game plan.

Harris and fellow bigs Kelly Olynyk and Przemek Kanowski not only form a League of Nations (they are from Germany, Canada, and Poland, respectively), but they were effective on the inside. When they were able to get the ball, the international trio shot 15-of-22 (68.1 percent), but they also accounted for nine turnovers. Meanwhile, the Gonzaga guards did not shoot quite as well as they normally do. Kevin Pangos is inconsistent and has not scored in double digits in consecutive games since the first three games of the season. Pangos and Gary Bell, Jr. only shot 6-of-20 from the field to even out the inside advantage.

The star of the game was Brandon Paul who put in a season-high 35 points. I suppose I should offer him some apologies for putting the Illinois senior on my preseason overrated list, but I refuse to apologize. Paul has shown the ability to put up big games from time to time (like his 43-point explosion last year to beat Ohio State), but he is usually just teasing us. On Saturday night, he had everything flowing and hit five 3-pointers, went to the line a season-high 11 times (making 10), and grabbed three steals.

I had not watched the Illini this season, but they are clearly a team built for coach John Groce. At Ohio, Groce built NCAA tournament-participating teams around guard D.J. Cooper, who had the green light to shoot a very low percentage. Illinois was not taking threes at any point in the shot clock and it is working for them. They do have some quality wins against Hawaii, USC, and Butler, but they are highly reliant on perimeter shooting. In other words, they will likely suffer some tough losses in conference play.

Gonzaga will be fine. They have made the NCAA tournament every year since 1999 and will have little problem making it again this year. The Zags simply have too much size for their WCC competition and their guards will have better games. They had played four Tier 1 teams (West Virginia, Clemson, Oklahoma, and Washington State) and blew out the first three. They still have a trio of Big 12 teams (Kansas State, Baylor, Oklahoma State) to finish off December, so they will be good and ready for some familiar teams like St. Mary's and BYU. Harris may be maturing into a star (16.6 points, 8.0 rebounds) and he should guide the team to another very successful season.

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