These two college basketball powerhouses come from opposite ends of the country. Despite that distance each owes a bit of their success to the other, thanks to a history of critical and entertaining match-ups. Not that history will matter on Friday in the Bahamas as both top-25 ranked teams will be looking to bounce back from close defeats.
The 18th ranked Huskies find themselves in the third place game thanks to a 79-76 loss to former Big East rival Syracuse. Gonzaga, the 10th ranked team in the AP Poll, got here with a semifinal loss to 25th ranked Texas A&M 62-61.
Still, it's worth noting how it came to be that Gonzaga and Connecticut came into the Battle 4 Atlantis as the favorites to make the championship game. To do so we need to take a quick trip down memory lane, all the way back to 1999, then make a few stops on the way back to today.
Gonzaga burst onto the national stage as a 10 seed in the 1999 NCAA Tournament. That magical madness came to an end at the hands of Connecticut in the Elite Eight. Two games later, the Huskies were raising their first national championship trophy.
Both programs have been among the best in basketball, with Connecticut picking up three more titles and Gonzaga making every NCAA Tournament in the years since.
Over those years the Zags and Huskies have met three times, with Connecticut winning twice. Each game has been close. In December 2008 UConn, ranked No. 2 at the time, took down No. 8 Gonzaga 88-83 in overtime. In 2007 No. 19 Gonzaga won 85-82 in Boston. Perhaps most similar to the game at hand was the 2005 Maui Invitational final when Connecticut won 65-63 in the final second.
These two programs have a history of important, entertaining games. This game is important and should likely be just as entertaining as the rest.
Scouting the Huskies
Coming into the Battle 4 Atlantis the Huskies boasted one of the nation's best defenses. Over their first three games their opponents averaged a meager 0.88 points per possession. In their Atlantis opener the Huskies held Michigan to just 60 points.
Then Syracuse torched Connecticut for 79 points on 47.9% shooting with an offensive efficiency of 109.3.
An upperclassman duo in the backcourt has led the way for the Huskies so far this season. Senior Sterling Gibbs leads the team at 14.5 points per game with junior Rodney Purvis not far behind at 14 points per game. Both are lights-out shooters with effective field goal percentages over 60% and 13 made threes each. Gonzaga's weakness is its backcourt, while UConn's strength is on the perimeter so the Huskies should have quite an advantage at the guard spots.
Daniel Hamilton, a 6-foot-7 sophomore guard, doesn't put up monster numbers in any one category but is averaging close to a triple-double (10.5 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 7 apg). Thursday against Syracuse he led the team with 18 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists.
Scouting the Bulldogs
Gonzaga's frontcourt has been dominant, as expected, in the early going. The starting duo of seniors Kyle Wiltjer (19.7 ppg) and Przemek Karnowski (9.7 ppg) provide a potent inside-out attack. Sophomore Domantas Sabonis (19.3 ppg, 10 rpg) has been the x-factor coming off the bench.
On Thursday against Texas A&M Sabonis, the reigning WCC Player of the Week, had a terrible game. Composure was an issue for Sabonis as a freshman and it was once again in the loss as he picked up five fouls to go with just two points and was visibly frustrated throughout.
When all three bigs are playing like they should the Zags are hard to stop. The Zags were averaging 90.7 points per game coming into the Texas A&M game.
The backcourt is where the questions lie for the Zags, as Mark Few has to decide between veteran leadership (seniors Kyle Dranginis and Eric McClellan) or young potential (sophomore Silas Melson and redshirt freshman Josh Perkins).
So far this year more questions have been raised than answered.
Perkins took over in the second half against Texas A&M scoring 15 points and almost leading the Zags to victory. McClellan, who has had a couple near perfect performances, sat down the stretch of that game in favor of Melson, who is tied with Karnowski as the team's third leading scorer. Then there's Dranginis who moved into the starting line-up after the aborted season opener against Pittsburgh and leads the team in assists.
With the Huskies' superb backcourt and ability to run a zone — Texas A&M's zone completely flustered Gonzaga early— Mark Few and company will need to make the right personnel decisions if they want to avoid a second straight defeat.