SEATTLE – North Carolina is ranked No. 1, but not necessarily in the unofficial Mark Few poll of big, tough, hard-nosed college basketball teams.
His vote would probably go to Connecticut.
“There is no more physically imposing team,” Gonzaga’s head coach said of the unbeaten Huskies, who provide the opposition for the Bulldogs today at KeyArena in the sixth annual Battle in Seattle.
Battle being an appropriate description of this showdown featuring two of the nation’s top teams. Gonzaga (8-1), which was ranked No. 4 before falling to Arizona, is No. 7 in the ESPN/USA Today ratings and No. 8 in the Associated Press poll. Connecticut (9-0) has been ranked second all season, one spot below the Tar Heels.
The Huskies have led Division I in blocked shots the last seven seasons and they’ve been in the top 15 nationally in field-goal percentage defense 11 of the last 13 years.
These teams met a year ago in Boston with then-No. 19 Gonzaga riding 23 points from Jeremy Pargo, 19 from Matt Bouldin and 14 from Micah Downs to an 85-82 win over the unranked Huskies. Both clubs return the majority of the impact players from that entertaining contest. Four UConn starters – guard Jerome Dyson (15.4), center Hasheem Thabeet (14.9), forward Jeff Adrien (14.4) and guard Craig Austrie (10.9) – and four Bulldogs starters – Josh Heytvelt (15.7), Austin Daye (13.0), Bouldin (11.4) and Downs (10.3) – average in double figures.
“They’re off the charts athletically, off the charts ability-wise, and probably the most impressive thing about UConn is how tough and hard-nosed they play,” Few said. “They’re a physically imposing team; you can’t back down from that. You have to step up and take that on.”
Gonzaga did so a year ago, with its guards leading the way. Daye struggled with the physical play and also was in foul trouble, but he contributed with three free throws in the closing seconds.
“I don’t know,” said Daye, when asked if Connecticut was the most physical team Gonzaga faced last season. “I’d say Tennessee was pretty tough like (Connecticut). And when we (scrimmaged) Texas (in early November) they were pretty physical.”
Few said the biggest difference in the Huskies is that the 7-foot-3 Thabeet, who wasn’t much of a factor a year ago against the Bulldogs, is vastly improved. He’s projected in the top five of most 2009 NBA mock drafts.
Thabeet is a force in the paint. He’s averaging 12.1 rebounds and 3.8 blocks. With 299 career blocks, he ranks second behind ex-Connecticut great Emeka Okafor’s 441. Thabeet is a 59.9 percent career field-goal shooter, helped greatly by the fact that 23 of his 45 baskets this season have been dunks.
Thabeet had just six points and five rebounds against Gonzaga a year ago, partially because he was in foul trouble.
“When you see the difference in him from last year to this year,” Few said, “it’s amazing.”
There are additional differences from a year ago. Gonzaga played that contest without Heytvelt and Steven Gray. Both were injured. However, 7-foot backup center Robert Sacre, who delivered nine points off the bench against UConn, is out with a foot injury.
For Connecticut, the biggest addition is freshman guard Kemba Walker, who averages 11.1 points and has reached 20 or more twice. And Stanley Robinson, an athletic 6-9 forward, just returned to the team after taking a leave of absence to sort out personal problems. He had been working from 7 a.m.-3:30 p.m., stacking and sorting scrap metal and loading trucks.
In his first game back, Robinson, who has made 45 career starts, had seven points in 16 minutes in a victory over Stony Brook.
“It’s a national championship-caliber team,” Few said. “We’re going to have to play A-plus to get it done.”
Both teams made weather-related adjustments to their travel schedules and arrived safely in Seattle. Gonzaga, which practiced in Spokane on Friday, arrived by charter flight early evening and the team will have a shootaround at KeyArena this morning. Connecticut arrived at about 3 p.m. and was scheduled to practice at KeyArena later Friday.
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