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Gonzaga 7-footer Sacre looks to bully Illini again

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Roberts Sacre

Notre Dame's Jack Cooley (45) defends Gonzaga's Roberts Sacre (00), in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Wednseday, Nov. 30, 2011, in Spokane, Wash. Gonzaga beat Notre Dame 73-53.(AP Photo/Jed Conklin)

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CHAMPAIGN -- Gonzaga center Robert Sacre has a knack for using his substantial butt like a snow plow.

Two years ago, the 7-foot, 260-pounder plowed Illini big man Mike Tisdale into the middle of an early Chicago winter.

In a showdown at the United Center, Tisdale found himself in quick foul trouble and was rendered almost useless in an 85-83 overtime victory for the Bulldogs, a game in which Tisdale played just 11 minutes before fouling out.

Sacre, now a senior, is even better at bullying young post players. And that means the guy with a target on his back Saturday is Illinois' sophomore center Meyers Leonard.

"Leonard learns something every game," Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. "I think it's that way with our whole team. And it's that way with our staff, too. We're learning about our team. We're learning what we can emphasize with so many different roles. Our whole team has a new role, maybe except for D.J. (Richardson). After that, everybody is figuring it out."

It's one of several subplots that figures to make Saturday an interesting battle between a 5-0 Gonzaga team that is ranked 19th, and a young, 7-0, learning-on-the-fly Illini squad that might scratch the Top 25 with a victory Saturday.

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Gonzaga is the preseason pick to win the West Coast Conference as coach Mark Few returns three starters from a 25-10 squad that lost to BYU in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

In addition to Sacre, who is the leading returning scorer and rebounder from a year ago, 6-7 Elias Harris has a chance to be the most explosive player in the league. He scored 19 against the Illini two years ago.

A pair of 3-point sharp-shooters, freshman Kevin Pangos and sophomore David Stockton (the son of former Utah Jazz star John Stockton) have already lit it up in early games. In Gonzaga's 89-81 victory over Washington State, Pangos drilled 9 of 13 3-pointer and totaled 33 points, and was 3-for-3 behind the arc for 15 points against Notre Dame.

"It's time for that (tough nonconference schedule) and let's see what happens," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said after the Notre Dame win. "We've got to keep our poise and stay together. This team has great chemistry and now we have to have great chemistry under fire. We're going to bank on those returning guys to help us with that."

After playing its first true road game of the season at Maryland, Weber is glad to be back in the Assembly Hall, where he's hopeful the Illini will be greeted by a rowdy home crowd that feeds them a little Orange Krush energy. Weber knows that's a reciprocal deal.

"It's a great chance to make a statement in early December against a quality opponent," he said. "Playing at home doesn't mean you are going to win. You have to take advantage of it and use the crowd to see if you can take it to teams."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Zags' visit

Gonzaga at Illinois

Time: 2:15 p.m. Saturday

Broadcasts: ESPN2; 93.7-FM

 

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