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Illinois will learn a lot about itself vs. Gonzaga

GeorgiTech BrandReed (23) defends Illinois' BrandPaul (3) during first half an NCAA college basketball game Champaign Ill.  Wednesday Nov.

Georgia Tech Brandon Reed (23) defends Illinois' Brandon Paul (3) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Champaign, Ill. Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012. (AP Photo/Robert K. O'Daniell)

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No. 13 Illinois at No. 10 Gonzaga

The facts: 9 p.m., ESPN2, 560-AM.

Updated: January 9, 2013 6:06AM

John Groce doesn’t want people drawing too many conclusions from No. 13 Illinois’ trip to No. 10 Gonzaga on Saturday.

That’s the right approach for the Illini, who will put their 9-0 record on the line against the Bulldogs, who also are off to a 9-0 start, a school record.

‘‘Every game’s a measuring stick,’’ Groce said Thursday. ‘‘We learn from every circumstance we’re in. But our season and what we’re trying to do here at Illinois is never defined by one game. It’s a much bigger picture than that.’’

It’s a great point, particularly because Gonzaga rarely loses at 6,000-seat McCarthey Athletic Center, also known as the Kennel. The Bulldogs are 110-7 in the MAC since it opened in 2004.

The Zags’ bite is expected to be as stern as their bark this year. Mark Few might have his best team in his 14 years as coach. All-America candidate Elias Harris, a 6-7 senior who’s averaging 16.8 points and 8.1 rebounds, leads the way. Two 7-footers, junior Kelly Olynyk (13.8 and 7) and freshman Przemek Karnowski (9.3 and 3.8), provide length.

Sophomores Kevin Pangos (10.6 points and 3.9 assists) and Gary Bell Jr. (10.1 points) form one of the nation’s best young backcourts. Gonzaga also has nine players averaging more than 14 minutes per game.

In other words, this is not the Little-Engine-That-Could Gonzaga that used to sneak up on people in March.

‘‘The word that comes too me is ‘well-rounded,’ ’’ Groce said. ‘‘I don’t know if they have a weakness. They have depth, skill, athleticism. They play hard. They play together. They’re great in the post. They use the three-point shot effectively. I can see why people say this is potentially the best team [Few] has had.’’

In that light, Illinois’ first loss hardly would be a step backward. A win, though, would make a statement to skeptics such as CBS­’s Jeff Goodman.

‘‘The Illini had a couple of decent wins en route to the Maui Invitational title, but that event was just ordinary this year,’’ Goodman wrote in a rundown of the nation’s remaining unbeaten teams. ‘‘Brandon Paul is one of the best guards in the country, but there’s just not enough around him to sustain anything like this. Look for the Illini in the NIT this year.’’

Stuff like that will make Illini ­Nation chafe. That’s why games such as this one against Gonzaga and the Dec. 22 meeting with Missouri have become more interesting. They’re good barometers.

‘‘We’ll have a chance to learn a lot about our team because [Gonzaga is] such a great team,’’ Groce said. ‘‘Great teams take advantage of your mistakes and expose you. Our system’s going to be tested at a high level. I’m looking forward to seeing where our system is at.’’

Gonzaga isn’t infallible. The Zags escaped from Washington State ­71-69 on Wednesday, barely beating a team that’s picked to finish 10th in the Pac-12.

The key for Illinois is to muster the all-around toughness it showed in its four-game Hawaii trip, not the vulnerable side it showed in precarious victories over Gardner-Webb and Western Carolina.

‘‘We’ve got to get better, and we will,’’ Groce said after the Western Carolina game. ‘‘We’re better than what we played. We’ll get it figured out.’’

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