A 9-0 start is wonderful. Particularly given the football season that 9-0 start has helped us move on from. It's just as nice to see that #13 next to Illinois when watching them on television. All that being said, however, none of it actually means anything.
We all remember last season when the Illini started the season 10-0. After that start the Illini would lose three of their next five, but a 3-1 start in Big Ten play would put the Illini at 15-3 after Brandon Paul went off against Ohio State. But then the wheels fell off, the Illini would go 2-12 the rest of the way, Bruce Weber would be fired and John Groce would replace him and help this team get off to that 9-0 start.
And now here we are, hours away from getting our first true indication of what kind of team we have. Yes, this team has shown us that it can come through in the clutch and deal with adversity. That being said, buzzer-beater wins against teams like Hawaii and Gardner-Webb were great, but they're not something to be bragged about either. We learned a bit about this team on that trip to Hawaii too, where it beat up on USC and Chaminade and put away Butler with relative ease.
All games won outside of Assembly Hall, but the only true road tests were that Hawaii game and Chaminade.
Tonight we not only hit the road, but we do so against the best team we've played this season by far. A game that John Groce knows will be this team's biggest challenge on the season.
"Obviously, this is a great challenge in front of us," said Groce this week. "We have a chance to learn a lot about our team because they're such a great team and if you make errors and mistakes, great teams take advantage and expose you. So I'm looking forward to seeing where our system is against such a high quality basketball team.
"[Gonzaga is] so well-rounded, it's tough to find a weakness. Their collection of big men is the best we've seen. They are the best offensive rebounding team we've played. They have good guards. I'd like to say I see a severe chink in the armor and we'll attack that, but I don't."
I have a hard time disagreeing with Groce. That's not to say Gonzaga is unbeatable by any means. After all, the Zags are coming off a two-point win against a rather mediocre Washington State team. Also, many of the same things being said about the Illini this season can be said about Gonzaga.
Their best win is Clemson, which is a good team but certainly not a world-beater. They also beat West Virginia early in the year, but the Mountaineers haven't been all that impressive through the first month. Yes, Gonzaga's overall resume is better than Illinois', but it isn't remarkable by any stretch.
Still, this is a team that was a preseason Final Four darkhorse pick. And there's a reason for it. Guys like Elias Harris, Kelly Olynyk, Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell are all good players. And as Groce said above, this is a team with a lot of size that can kill you in the paint and on the boards.
Two areas which rank as Problems One and Two for this Illini team.
So, truth be told, I'm not expecting a win tonight. But I don't need a win tonight, either. I'm more interested in seeing how this team deals with a situation in which it's not only the underdog, but in a tough environment.
If you want a true indication of how things are going to go once Big Ten play starts, tonight's the night you'll get it.