Saturday marks the first true challenge for the 2008-09 UConn Men's Basketball team (8-0; #2 AP, #2 ESPN/USA Today), as they travel to Seattle to take on the Gonzaga Bulldogs (7-1; #8 AP, #7 ESPN/USA Today).
The two teams met in Boston last December, and the contrast between the two teams was obvious: the speed and athleticism of UConn vs. the shooting and fundamental play of Gonzaga. The Bulldogs took home an 85-82 victory in a game not decided until the closing seconds.
This season, many of the faces are the same for what promises to be another hard-fought battle. Here's the breakdown:
GUARDS: UConn returns Second Team All-American AJ Price, along with Jerome Dyson and Craig Austrie; all of whom were major contributors from last year's squad. Dyson and Austrie have given the team exactly what was expected of them, averaging 15.4 and 10.9 points, respectively. Price, however, continues to work his way back from his season-ending injury suffered in the first round of last year's NCAA tournament, averaging under 9 points on the season.
Luckily for the Huskies, freshman guard Kemba Walker has stepped in to post averages of 11.1 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game. This gives Calhoun the ability to have two above-average ball handlers on the court at the same time, something that seems to work out well for the Huskies in March (See: Moore & El-Amin, 1999; Gordon & Brown, 2004).
Gonzaga counters with a three guard lineup, rotating between Matt Bouldin, Micah Downs, Steven Gray and Jeremy Pargo. The Bulldogs have an experienced, well-rounded group of guards who are especially good at rebounding the basketball. The Huskies were unable to stop Pargo last year, as he scored 23 points in the victory. Look for the Huskies to learn from last year's mistakes, and use their speed and athleticism to create match up problems for the bigger, but slower, Gonzaga back court. Advantage: UConn
FRONT COURT: The Huskies' front line got a boost last week when Stanley Robinson returned from a four month stint as a scrap metal sorter, the result of a team issued suspension. Robinson, at one time a top national recruit, averaged over 15 points per game down the stretch last season, and his ability to knock down mid-range jump shots and get to the rim adds great versatility on the wing.
The constantly improving Hasheem Thabeet still has a lot to learn about the game of basketball, but he is a constant defensive presence, and averages over 14 points and 12 rebounds. The tall and lanky Thabeet is complemented by Jeff Adrien, the undersized power forward who is averaging 14 and 9. Look for the UConn front line to dominate the defensive glass, and Thabeet to be a shot-altering presence.
On the other side, Gonzaga counters with Josh Heytvelt, who is more than willing to create match up problems by stepping out and shooting the three, along with Austin Daye. Look for the Huskies to try to get the Gonzaga bigs out of their comfort zones by playing physical down low and drawing some early fouls. While the versatile bigs from Gonzaga will pose some match up problems for the more traditional Husky front court, the Husky depth and balance should give them the edge. Advantage: UConn
COACHING: There is no question that these are two of the best. Mark Few has consistently done more with less than any other coach in the nation, while Jim Calhoun has secured his legacy as a Hall of Fame coach, holder of two national championships. There are rumblings in Connecticut that Calhoun's rough tactics are wearing thin on his young team. This is not the first time that his November coaching style methods have been questioned, but it will be time to worry when he is unable to deliver in February and March. Advantage: Push
PREDICTION: Look for UConn to take advantage of their quickness in the back court and their size up front to run early and look to get the Bulldogs into foul trouble. Calhoun has been frustrated with the defensive effort being put forth by the Huskies, calling it his worst defensive team in at least five years.
The Huskies will have to close out on the Gonzaga shooters if they hope to stay out of a high-scoring shoot out. Although the Huskies ran into some travel related problems and arrived in Seattle a day later than anticipated, expect them to come out focused and ready to avenge last year's close loss. Final Score: UConn 78, Gonzaga 71