LAS VEGAS – The Gonzaga and Connecticut teams clashing in Saturday’s Elite Eight game at T-Mobile Arena were in the same city, and very different places within their individual seasons, five months ago while competing at the PK85, held over four days at the Moda Center during Thanksgiving week.
The Bulldogs left the Portland-based Nike tournament with an 88-84 win over Xavier, but more questions than answers after an 84-66 loss to Purdue a few days earlier. Gonzaga didn’t do anything to alleviate those concerns the following week with a 64-63 loss to Baylor that dropped the Bulldogs to 5-3 on the season.
The Huskies, meanwhile, seized a Phil Knight Invitational championship, winning games against Oregon, Alabama and Iowa State by a combined 57 points. UConn reeled off six more wins en route to a 14-0 start.
Carrying a 12-game winning streak into Saturday’s game , Gonzaga is hitting its stride at the right time, playing with the confidence and defensive focus that was often missing in November and December.
“Our defense will face its greatest challenge,” UConn coach Dan Hurley said. “And they play in a similar way to Xavier, which I don’t know how good of news that is for us because we didn’t – 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.”
On the other side is a UConn team that finds itself peaking for the second time this season. The Huskies followed a 14-0 start with losses in six of their next eight games. They’ve since won 12 of 14 and appear to be one of the most dangerous teams remaining in the NCAA Tournament, winning three games by a margin of 20.6 points.
“Everybody’s fired up and excited to still be playing in the greatest sporting event in the world,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “Short night and UConn presents a lot of problems. … I mean, talking to people, I think we all feel like they’re playing as good as any team in this tournament right now.
“We know it’s going to be a real physical game. Their transition offense is every bit as good as ours. And they just have the ability to score inside and outside. And then their defense has been top-notch through this tourney. It was excellent yesterday.”
The Huskies rolled to a drama-free 88-65 win over Arkansas in the Sweet 16 and returned to their hotel in time to watch Gonzaga vs. UCLA in the nightcap at T-Mobile Arena.
The Bulldogs and Bruins traded blows for 40 minutes until Gonzaga junior and Las Vegas native Julian Strawther decided things with a deep 3-pointer with 7 seconds left to clinch a 79-76 come-from-behind win.
After Jalen Suggs produced a similar moment two years ago in Gonzaga’s Final Four win over UCLA, the Bulldogs celebrated back at their team hotel in Indianapolis and didn’t turn the page to begin preparing for a national championship matchup with Baylor until the following day.
Gonzaga started slowly and failed to match Baylor in a handful of areas – physical play and energy perhaps being the most obvious – and the Bulldogs watched their perfect season end with an 86-70 loss at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“For how intense and highly emotional that game was, I don’t think we can get over that now,” Gonzaga’s Drew Timme said of the Final Four game in 2021. “You can talk about it, but it’s hard. We did celebrate. It’s the Final Four and we’re going to the championship. That’s such a huge moment. This year what we did is we watched film right when we got home, and I think that helped a lot.”
UConn probably warrants more film study than the 48 hours Gonzaga will get.
The Huskies have a dynamic scorer in the backcourt, 6-foot-5 sophomore guard Jordan Hawkins, who’ll be a challenge with his size and shot-making.
Hawkins is averaging 16.1 points per game and coming off a 24-point game in the Sweet 16, going 9 for 9 from the free-throw line against Arkansas.
“I think he’s the best, probably, jump shooter in college basketball, especially what he’s able to do with off-ball screens and pindowns and flares and actions like that,” Few said. “He’s got that gift. Adam Morrison had that for us back in the day, hitting closely guarded shots.
“You can be there in his face, have a hand up, and he’s still able to hit those. And they run some really, really good actions for them. They screen for him very well.”
UConn ranked third nationally in scoring margin (14.0 ppg) and projects as the top rebounding team Gonzaga’s faced since playing Purdue at the PK85. The Boilermakers own the country’s best rebounding margin at 10.8 per game, but the Huskies are No. 2 at 9.4.