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Weekend Preview: Gonzaga and Illinois highlight Saturday’s action

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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.

BUBBLE BANTER: All of tonight’s bubbly action in one place

Connecticut head coach Kevin Ollie calls to his team during an NCAA college basketball game against Central Florida, Sunday, Jan. 31, 2016 at the CFE Arena in Orlando, Fla. (Jacob Langston/Orlando Sentinel via AP)
(Jacob Langston/Orlando Sentinel via AP)
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Tonight’s schedule. This post will be updated as the games are completed.

UConn (KenPom: 19, RPI: 46) at Temple (KenPom: 95, RPI: 69), 7:00 p.m.
Florida State (KenPom: 37, RPI: 38) at Syracuse (KenPom: 39, RPI: 44), 7:00 p.m.
VCU (KenPom: 32, RPI: 40) at UMass, 7:00 p.m.
Arkansas-Little Rock (KenPom: 41, RPI: 63) at Louisiana Monroe, 8:00 p.m.
Northern Kentucky at Valparaiso (KenPom: 22, RPI: 48), 8:00 p.m.
No. 4 Iowa at Indiana (KenPom: 24, RPI: 51), 9:00 p.m.
No. 11 Oregon at Cal (KenPom: 44, RPI: 32), 9:00 p.m.
Washington State at Colorado (KenPom: 56, RPI: 29), 11:00 p.m.
Gonzaga (KenPom: 33, RPI: 66) at Portland, 11:00 p.m.
Pepperdine at Saint Mary’s (KenPom: 26, RPI: 52), 11:00 p.m.
Oregon State (KenPom: 81, RPI: 31) at Stanford (KenPom: 104, RPI: 71), 11:00 p.m.

PREGAME SHOOTAROUND: Big Ten showdown and key bubble battles

Iowa's Jarrod Uthoff (20), Christian Williams, center, and Adam Woodbury, second from left, and Michigan State's Deyonta Davis (23) and Eron Harris (14) reach for a rebound during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)
AP Photo/Al Goldis
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GAME OF THE NIGHT: No. 4 Iowa at Indiana, 7:00 p.m.

As a result of their surprising loss at Penn State Saturday night, Tom Crean’s Hoosiers enter this pivotal contest a game back of the Hawkeyes in the Big Ten standings. And with their backloaded conference schedule, this is a game Indiana has to get if they’re to entertain thoughts of winning the Big Ten title. Two of the Big Ten’s best players will be on display in Iowa’s Jarrod Uthoff and Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell, but both have plenty of help behind them offensively.

Iowa’s Peter Jok has been one of the conference’s most improved players, and the Hoosiers can counter not only with forward Troy Williams but with freshman center Thomas Bryant as well. The key in this one: turnovers, as Indiana has lost the ball on more than 20 percent of their possessions in conference play. That can’t happen tonight if they’re to win.

THIS ONE’S GOOD TOO: No. 11 Oregon at California, 9:00 p.m.

The Ducks have been the class of the Pac-12 to this point, but a win in Berkeley won’t come easy. The Golden Bears may not be enjoying the success many expected before the season began, but Cuonzo Martin’s team has won all 14 of its home games this season, most recently whipping rival Stanford last weekend.

The problem for Cal: Tyrone Wallace is still out due to injury, and given Oregon’s many versatile scoring options that’s a problem. Pac-12 POY candidate Dillon Brooks leads the way, but Chris Boucher has emerged as one of the conference’s best big men in recent weeks. Jaylen Brown, Ivan Rabb and Jordan Mathews will need to come up big, as this is a huge contest for Cal’s NCAA tournament hopes.

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR

  • The top two teams in the Big West get together in Honolulu, as Hawai’i hosts UC Irvine (1:00 a.m.) in the first of their two meetings this season. This will be a matchup of strengths when the Bows have the ball, as they lead the Big West in two-point field goal percentage (54.7) while UC Irvine leads the conference in two-point percentage defense (38.9) thanks in large part to 7-foot-6 Mamadou Ndiaye. Hawai’i forward Stefan Jankovic (15.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg) has been a much-improved player under first-year head coach Eran Ganot, leading the team in both scoring and rebounding.
  • Two ACC teams with matching 6-5 league records meet at the Carrier Dome, as Syracuse hosts Florida State (7:00 p.m.) in a game both teams need for their respective NCAA tournament résumés. Jim Boeheim’s team should be well-rested, as they haven’t played in nine days, and they’ll need that energy to slow down FSU guards Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Malik Beasley and Dwayne Bacon. The Seminole backcourt is young but talented, and they’ll face two fifth-year seniors in Syracuse’s Michael Gbinije and Trevor Cooney.
  • Picking up a home sweep of Utah and Colorado may have given Oregon State’s NCAA tournament hopes some life, but they really need to go on a run here. Tonight’s game at Stanford (11:00 p.m.) represents a good opportunity for Gary Payton II and company to win their third straight, but the Cardinal did win the first meeting in Corvallis back on January 6. In that game rebounding was the deciding factor (Rosco Allen finished with 21 and eight boards, too), as Stanford grabbed half of their available missed shots. OSU can’t let that happen again.
  • With SMU ineligible for postseason play, the other American Athletic Conference teams are jockeying for position in next month’s conference tournament. Tonight UConn looks to avenge its home loss to Temple January 5 with a win in Philadelphia (7:00 p.m.). Since Amida Brimah’s return the Huskies have played much better basketball, as they have their rim protector and a finisher for Daniel Hamilton’s alley-oop passes back on the court. The Owls have won their last three games, and tonight is their second-best remaining opportunity for a quality win (they play No. 1 Villanova next Wednesday).
  • At this point, no one’s catching Wichita State for the Missouri Valley regular season title without the Shockers collapsing in epic fashion. But when it comes to who can earn the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, both Illinois State and Evansville have a shot. The two teams meet in Evansville tonight (8:00 p.m.), with three of the Valley’s best players on display in ISU’s DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell and Evansville’s D.J. Balentine and Edigijus Mockevicius. Evansville won the first meeting by 11 in mid-January, as the Redbirds shot 6-for-31 from three on the night.

OTHER NOTABLE GAMES

  • Mercer at Wofford, 7:00 p.m.
  • Hofstra at William & Mary, 7:00 p.m.
  • High Point at Coastal Carolina, 7:00 p.m.
  • James Madison at College of Charleston, 7:00 p.m.
  • Milwaukee at Oakland, 7:00 p.m.
  • Pepperdine at Saint Mary’s, 11:00 p.m.