The No. 3 Gonzaga Bulldogs and the No. 4 Connecticut Huskies will face off in the Elite Eight for a chance to advance to the Final Four. For the Zags, it would be a return trip since 2021. For UConn, not since 2014, when they won a natty on top.
The Zags needed to muster everything they could to get here. Gonzaga overcame a 13-point deficit and absolutely silenced the UCLA offense in the second half of their Sweet 16 matchup. Nothing comes easy for this squad and Julian Strawther, the home town hero, buried a three in the closing seconds to give the Zags yet another exciting March Madness victory.
UConn earned the right to face off against No. 8 Arkansas in the Sweet 16. The Razorbacks, who last weekend knocked off the top-seeded Kansas Jayhawks, were completely swarmed by UConn on both ends of the floor, losing 88-65.
This game should be one of the best matchups of the Elite Eight. Both Gonzaga and UConn resided in the KenPom top 10, and neither team’s seeding level truly reflected the story the analytics told. It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise they face each other tomorrow.
Meet the opponent
Connecticut Huskies, 28-8, KenPom #3
If you are looking strictly at the seeding line and thinking to yourself that the Zags should have this one in the bag based solely on that number, I regret to inform you that you are in for a painful and long 40 minutes. DraftKings is favoring UConn by -2 points for a reason.
UConn has been one of the best teams all season. They seemingly peaked early, earning a No. 2 AP Ranking before fully diving into conference play. They lost seven of nine games and plummeted off everyone’s radar. The eight total wins suggest a team that can definitely lose, but the Huskies have looked anything but that in the Tournament, winning by 24, 15, and 23. They are playing amazing basketball at the moment.
Much of that starts with the play of junior big man Adama Sanogo, who is the Huskies leading scorer at 17.3 points and has been even more of a wrecking ball this tournament. Sanogo dropped 28 on Iona and 24 on Saint Mary’s, grabbing offensive boards like it was his danged job. He is an absolute force down low, and it will be interesting to see what the Zags throw at him to try and slow him down.
The backcourt of Tristan Newton and Jordan Hawkins is a potent combination of experience and sheer scoring will. Newton, the senior point guard, has actually been one of the few not shining oh-so-brightly spots for the Huskies this tournament, particularly his last two games in which he finished with four turnovers a piece.
Hawkins is a lethal three-point shooting threat who the Zags will have to tag on the perimeter the entire game. Leave him open, and he will burn you.
What to watch out for
Zags need to dig deep on the defensive end to pull out this win.
During the first half of the UCLA game, the Gonzaga defense was painful to watch. Granted, the Bruins are a talented outfit, but they were seemingly scoring at will. In the second half, it was a completely different game. UCLA went nearly 10 minutes without a single field goal as Gonzaga pushed back into the game. They will need much more from column B than column A to win this game.
Yes, the Zags’ offense is rolling right now. However, UConn’s is as well. Their offense is ranked No. 3 by KenPom. The main difference between the Huskies and the Zags? The Huskies own a No. 13 defense as well. That is why they have been a trendy lower seeded title pick. UConn doesn’t allow a lot of assists, they don’t allow a lot of three point attempts. It will be hard for the Zags to score because the Huskies have the personnel to matchup.
Can Drew Timme continue this torrid pace?
The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing Drew Timme to announce this is his final year of college basketball. Timme has been absolutely stellar throughout the Tournament, and that was on display thoroughly last night. His 36 points tie Brandon Clarke’s school NCAA record. He now owns 10 NCAA Tournament games with 20+ points. Most in modern history. As much of a question it is for the Zags on how they stop Sanogo, the same can be said for how they stop Timme. No one has done it successfully yet, and if Timme’s cooking like he did last night, the Zags are a hard out.
Malachi Smith stepping into that sixth man role.
I want to give a special shoutout to Malachi Smith. There have been a couple of dumb turnovers that launched my consciousness into the sun, but looking past those, the transfer has played some critical basketball in the wins over TCU and UCLA. Against TCU, Smith stepped up like Big Shot Bob, hitting each shot right when Gonzaga needed it. He continued that last night, playing most of the second half after Nolan Hickman and Rasir Bolton couldn’t get much going.
Gonzaga has to figure out how to disrupt UConn’s offensive flow.
It isn’t often that we talk about another team’s offense, but the Huskies play a beautiful brand of basketball featuring passes galore. Against a Gonzaga team that has struggled with defensive communication throughout the entire system, this is a worrisome team to go up against. The Huskies register an assist on 63 percent of their field goals, good for ninth in the country.
In a season featuring plenty of big games of the year, this is once against the biggest game of the year. The Zags have shown some solid mettle this tournament. They ground out that win over TCU. They came back from behind against UCLA. Gonzaga shouldn’t go down quietly, by any stretch, but they will need everything they have to beat the team playing the best basketball right now.