8:49 PM EST, TBS – Line: UConn -2.5, Over/Under: 153.5
As chaos continues to reign supreme in this latest edition of the NCAA Men’s Tournament, we’ve reached the Elite Eight where the fourth-seeded UConn Huskies battle the third-seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs in what is being billed as a bonafide dogfight in this West Regional Final from T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada. It’s been a while, but UConn (28-8, 13-7 in Big East) is back, ladies and gentlemen, and they have designs on reaching the heights that they routinely secured throughout the first fifteen years of the century. Indeed, when thinking about powerhouse programs, the Huskies may not immediately come to mind, but few were better from 1990-2014; amassing a stellar 634-217 record (.745), Connecticut won TEN Big East Regular Season Titles, SEVEN Conference Tournaments, advanced to FOURTEEN Sweet Sixteens, and FIVE Final Fours, with FOUR National Championships to their credit, which is more than UCLA, Kentucky, Kansas, and North Carolina during that span, trailing only Duke in terms of supremacy on the hardwood. Now in his fifth campaign in Storrs, (Head Coach) Dan Hurley has successfully awoken this sleeping giant, steering them to their first season with at least twenty-eight victories since 2014 and their first trip to Elite in nearly a decade. Momentum is a key ingredient for success in the NCAA Tournament, and UConn has that in spades at the moment, for you would be hard-pressed to find a team left in the field playing more impressive basketball than these dogs. Winners of ten of their final thirteen games heading into the big dance, the Huskies have been something else in this competition, hammering the opposition by an average margin of 21.7 points, shooting a white-hot 52.9% from the field and 44.8% from beyond the arc, while dishing out a healthy 20.3 assists in comparison to committing 12.0 turnovers, and owning the glass on a +13.3-rebounding differential. As was the case with past incarnations of this team, Hurley has size and length throughout the roster, particularly in the frontcourt, where opponents have only been able to muster 45.0% shooting within the arc (16th Overall) this season. There are playmakers in the backcourt too, with (Sophomore Swingman) Jordan Hawkins looking like a future NBA talent, with 16.3 points on 43.3% shooting, including a scintillating 47.6% from downtown, along with 2.0 rebounds and 1.3 assists over the last three contests. When we last saw UConn, they continued their torrid form through the big dance with their third consecutive victory of at least fifteen points, mauling (8 Seed) Arkansas in an 88-65 performance. This one was never close, folks, as the Huskies raced out to a 46-29 lead at halftime and continued to build upon post-intermission. It’s hard to fathom a more lopsided affair, as Connecticut shot a blistering 57.4% from the field, including 22-of-34 from within the arc (64.7%) and 9-of-20 beyond it (45.0%), while also netting 17-of-21 free-throws (81.0%). Despite committing fifteen turnovers, Hurley’s troops assisted on twenty-two of their thirty-one field goals, while battering the Razorbacks on the glass (39-25). On the flipside, the Hogs could manage just 31.7% shooting overall, including a miserable 15-of-47 from within the arc (31.9%) and 5-of-16 beyond it (31.3%), with nearly a third of their points coming from the free-throw line (20-of-27). The aforementioned Hawkins (pictured above) was sensational in this one, totaling a game-high twenty-four points on 6-of-13 shooting (46.2%) and 9-of-9 from the stripe (100.0%), along with a pair of rebounds, three assists, and a steal. (Junior Forward) Adama Sanogo dominated the paint with his size and length, totaling eighteen points, eight rebounds, and a pair of blocks, while missing just two of his eleven attempts from the field. Despite scoring just seven points, (Junior Guard) Andre Jackson’s fingerprints were all over this contest, with eight rebounds, seven assists, and three steals. From a betting perspective, UConn has been one of the best teams in the nation in terms of covering the spread, owning a superb 24-11-1 this season, while currently riding the wave of eight covers in their last ten games regardless of the venue. Being a favorite has suited them well, as the Huskies have covered four of their last five and eight of ten when laying points to their opponents. Tonight’s affair marks the sixth-ever meeting between the programs and the first since 2015, with Connecticut owning a 3-2 advantage in the all-time series. They’ve only met once in the NCAA Tournament, ironically in the 1999 West Regional Final, which the top-seeded Huskies won 67-62 en route to eventually winning their first National Championship. Indeed, the faithful Storrs hope that history does indeed repeat itself, for with a win tonight the school will be off to their SIXTH Final Four since cutting down the nets just before the turn of the century, and their first since winning their fourth National Title back in 2014.
Meanwhile, you may want to consider Gonzaga (31-5, 14-2 in WCC) to be the western counterpart to Connecticut, particularly when you consider the path that the program has taken to reach these heights and how it mirrors that of their opponent tonight. Similar to how Jim Calhoun built the Huskies into a powerhouse, (Head Coach) Mark Few has done the same with the Bulldogs, for in twenty-four years, the 60-year-old has amassed a stellar .837 win percentage, with TWENTY-TWO WCC Regular Season Titles and NINETEEN Conference Tournament Titles to his credit, while appearing in the big dance every year and advancing to the Sweet Sixteen and beyond on eleven occasions, including each of the last seven tourneys, highlighted by trips to the National Championship Game and 2017 and 2021. Furthermore, he has done a tremendous job of recruiting and developing talent, with twenty-five players drafted to the NBA since 2000, including ten of them in last six years alone. From the looks of things, it appears that you can add two more to that list, as (Junior Swingman) Julian Strawther and (Senior Forward) Drew Timme are next in line, with each playing sizable roles in their success in reaching this point. As we’ll get into shortly, Strawther has developed into the prototypical win that NBA has prioritized of late, with his lithe 6′-7″ frame allowing him to drive to the rim just as easily as hoot over opponents, which is something that he is very adept at, netting a torrid 42.1% on threes this season. As for Timme, the gregarious big fella has been a fixture in Spokane for four years now, while becoming the school’s all-time leading scorer along the way. Though there are concerns over is lack of athleticism transitioning to the next level, the 6′-10″, 235-lbs Texas native makes up for it with skill, anticipation, and mental acuity. In the tournament thus far, he has averaged 28.3 points on 62.1% shooting, along with 9.0 rebounds, 3.3 assists, and 2.0 blocks. Tonight’s matchup with UConn will be crucial in terms of how he is viewed as a prospect on the next level, for the Huskies have a plethora of size and length up front that he must navigate through. When we last saw Gonzaga, they put together their second consecutive rally to advance in the big dance, unseating (2 Seed) UCLA in a thrilling 79-76 victory. Indeed, Few’s troops appeared to be dead in the water in this one, trailing by as many as thirteen points early in the second half, only to circle the proverbial wagons and relegate the Bruins to over ten minutes without a single field goal, amounting to a 23-point swing late in the half. With that said, the Pac-12 denizens wouldn’t go away, amassing a stunning 10-1 run over the last three minutes to take a 76-75 lead with just thirteen seconds left on the game clock. However, all was not lost as the aforementioned Strawther (pictured above) received the pass roughly midway between center court and the three-point arc to bury a cold-blooded trailing dagger to retake the lead. He would be sent to the charity stripe on the ensuing possession to stretch the lead to three points, before UCLA’s potential game-winner fell short of the mark. It was the second time in three years that the Bulldogs eliminated the Bruins in the NCAA Tournament via a late game-winner, as the WCC Champions received huge performances from several figures, including Timme, who kept them within striking distance throughout the affair with a game-high thirty-six points on 16-of-24 shooting (66.7%), along with thirteen rebounds and four assists. Strawther finished with sixteen points on a disappointing 5-of-15 shooting (33.3%), but came up aces when they needed him to, adding ten rebounds of his own as the Zags owned a commanding +24 rebounding advantage, including +11 on the offensive glass. From a betting perspective, Gonzaga is 14-20-1 against the spread this season, though are 6-4 in that regard over their last ten games regardless of the venue. With that said, the NCAA Tournament has been a bit of a different story for the Bulldogs, who have covered the line in only one of their eight tourney contests, with Friday night’s triumphant comeback over the Bruins bucking that particular trend. However, this matchup marks the rare occurrence in which they’ve been an underdog; the Zags have received points from the oddsmakers on just four occasions this season, owning a 2-2 record against the spread in such situations, which again includes that victory over UCLA. Tonight’s affair marks the FIFTH time in the last nine years that Few & Co have progressed to the Elite Eight, with a win over the Huskies booking passage to their third Final Four since 2017 as they continue their quest for what would be the program’s first-ever National Championship.