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Elite Eight Gameday: UConn vs. Gonzaga | 8:49 p.m., TBS
It's a big day for the Huskies, with a Final Four bid on the line.
The 4-seed UConn Huskies and 3-seed Gonzaga Bulldogs are meeting in Las Vegas for the West Regional final, a rematch of 1999’s Elite Eight matchup that led to the Huskies’ first-ever national championship.
Shockingly, the head coach manning the sidelines for Gonzaga has been there since 2000 and was an assistant on that 1999 team, which was a true Cinderella back then.
“The school had never even won a game in the NCAA Tournament, let alone three of them,” Mark Few recalled. “It was just such a magical ride…it's the start of the entire run.” Since then, Gonzaga has been a fixture in the NCAA Tournament and made two Final Fours, finishing as national runner-up in 2021.
The winner of today’s game advances to a 2023 Final Four field that should be wide open: all of the 1-seeds and all but one of the 2-seeds have already been eliminated.
As a result, UConn has transformed from a sneaky dark horse to most people’s top pick to win it all. Dan Hurley’s squad enters the game ranked No. 1 in KenPom’s overall efficiency rankings and as the oddsmakers’ favorite to cut down the nets in Houston.
First, they need to survive 40 minutes against a tough Gonzaga team to get there.
“It's going to come down to who gets the big offensive rebound, who forces a turnover, and who really wants it more,” Gonzaga wing Julian Strawther said.
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Elite Eight Preview
Venue: T-Mobile Arena — Las Vegas, Nevada
Radio: UConn Sports Network
Odds: UConn -2, over/under 153.5
KenPom Predicted Score: No. 4 UConn 80, No. 3 Gonzaga 77 | 59 percent win probability
One of the keys for UConn as it regained its mojo late in the season was the offensive breakthrough of Andre Jackson. Never expected to be a leading scorer, he still needed to hone his approach for the way teams started defending him.
The Athletic’s Brendan Quinn helped us understand how this occurred. The coaching staff guided Jackson toward his ideal spots on the floor, a lesson that occurred before the regular-season rematch with Providence.
“Prior to the Providence game, Jackson was shooting 46 percent on 2s and 26 percent on 3s. Since, he’s shooting 83 percent on 2s and 35 percent on 3s,” Quinn wrote.
Gonzaga’s coach and players know what they’re going up against in the versatile athlete.
“He does a little bit of everything,” forward Anton Watson said. “Once he gets a rebound, he pushes it up the court super fast.”
“He's incredibly impactful on both ends of the floor,” Mark Few said. “He's really impactful in transition, [and] scary when he's up on top of their three-quarter-court press or even on top of their zone.
“Defensively…they have somebody they want to shut down, they put him on them.”
The Battle in the Post
Drew Timme vs. Adama Sanogo is going to be the matchup to watch tonight. Both guys had nothing but respect for each other in pre-game conversations.
“He's an All-American-caliber player,” Timme said of Sanogo. “He uses his body well. He's strong, he's aggressive, he gets a lot of his misses back, which I think is the underrated part of his game…and he's a smart player.”
Few notes that the Husky offense has been running through Sanogo.
“They do a great job of getting him the ball from different areas and different spots,” he said. “A lot of the feeds are from the middle of the floor. And then they're mixed up with wing touches. And they run actions before he rolls down in there.”
“On top of that, he's just a big-time offensive rebounder. He's one of the big issues that we've got to get solved here.”
In observance of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Sanogo and two of his teammates, along with some staff members in solidarity, are fasting heading into this game. Given the timing of the fast, they should be able to consume food and liquids by halftime.
Dan Hurley called Sanogo “that rare individual in terms of intangible qualities…he's got tremendous physical strength and touch and athletic abilities. But he's got a tremendous makeup. Work ethic, off the charts…Competitive will, off the charts…he's a guy that values winning more than anything else.”
In terms of the matchup with Timme, Hurley may make a slight adjustment to the team’s defensive strategy.
“It's obviously a tremendous challenge for [Sanogo] and Donovan and for our entire team,” he said. “You've got to have help. He's got to see some bodies. You can't just leave him one-on-one. He's got to see some crowds, even though that's not really what we do.”
Hawk & The Perimeter
The Gonzaga contingent had plenty of respect for Jordan Hawkins’ abilities as well. The sophomore guard scored 24 points to lead UConn over Arkansas in the Sweet 16.
“The way he moves without the ball is amazing,” Gonzaga guard Nolan Hickman said. “It's definitely pro-like.”
“He's the best probably jump shooter in college basketball,” Few said. “Especially what he's able to do with off-ball screens and pin-downs and flares…Adam Morrison had that for us back in the day.”
UConn will have its own challenges defensively as well.
“The pace that they come at you with, in terms of how quickly they get the ball reversed from side to side, how quickly they get the ball down the court on makes, misses, your ball screen defense is stressed, low post defense is stressed,” Hurley said. “They've got all types of shooting on the perimeter. They've got great depth at guard.”
Then, perhaps to the consternation of UConn fans wary of this matchup, he compared Gonzaga to a team that his Huskies were unable to conquer this season.
“They play in a similar way to Xavier, which I don't know how good of news that is for us…we had trouble guarding them. But they play a very similar offensive style to something that we were able to see twice during the course of the year in terms of their spacing and how they attack you.”
For the first time this tournament, UConn is facing a team that appears to be on its level offensively. The Huskies are third in KenPom's offensive efficiency while the Bulldogs are first.
Gonzaga scores more points, shoots better, and does a better job of getting to the line while also being slightly better than UConn at keeping turnovers down. These numbers are against less-heavy competition, but they’re impressive nonetheless. This is a team that wiped away a 13-point halftime deficit against UCLA in the Sweet 16 to get here, after all.
Defensively, the Huskies have the advantage in most major categories and are the much better team. The Husky defense is 13th in KenPom while the Bulldogs’ is ranked 73rd.