The West Regional Final is set, as No. 3 Gonzaga will take on No. 4 UConn for a spot in the Final Four Saturday in Las Vegas. UConn is halfway to its fifth national title in program history. Gonzaga is looking for its elusive first championship, but could lock up a third Final Four appearance in the last six tournaments with a win.
Here’s a look at the matchup, key players to watch and what each team needs to do to punch its ticket to Houston.
How they got here:
UConn hasn’t played a high-stress minute in the final 10 minutes of a game this tournament. After blowing away pesky Iona and Saint Mary’s in the first two rounds early in the second half, the Huskies took it to Arkansas early and were never threatened by the Razorbacks in a 23-point win. After having not won an NCAA tournament game since 2016 before this run, the Huskies are now just one win away from the Final Four.
Gonzaga has had to survive tough tests in the round of 32 and Sweet 16, including one of the games of the tournament Thursday against UCLA. The Bulldogs trailed by double digits in the first half against both TCU and UCLA before charging back in the second half. UCLA then rallied from 10 down with under three minutes to go to take the lead with 12 seconds to go before Julian Strawther’s three sent Gonzaga to the Elite Eight.
This game is a battle of two of college basketball’s best “glue guys”. Andre Jackson is one of the most impactful players in the country without providing consistent scoring. Dan Hurley has repeatedly lauded Jackson’s ability to do the little things that help UConn win, everything from being the team’s best post entry passer to his ability to offensive rebound to defending the opponent’s best player. Teams often dare Jackson to burn them from beyond the arc, but he has done just enough shooting it from deep to keep defenses honest recently, and when he does that he’s an indispensable piece of the puzzle for the Huskies
Gonzaga is similarly effusive in its praise of Anton Watson, who made some absolutely critical plays as the Bulldogs tried to get back into the game Thursday night. He had a key offensive rebound that turned into a three that cut the deficit to 10, an and-one bucket to swing momentum off an awkward pass from Drew Timme and helped slow down Jaime Jaquez Jr. with his work on the defensive end.
Stat to watch: Offensive rebounding
Only Kentucky has rebounded a higher percentage of its own misses this season than UConn, which grabbed 11 offensive boards in its blowout win over Arkansas on Thursday. And it’s not just the Huskies’ two-headed monster at center that steals extra possessions for UConn: Jackson’s elite athleticism helps him grab tough rebounds in traffic, while freshman Alex Karaban seems to have a nose for the ball.
That said, Gonzaga is somewhat well-equipped to deal with UConn’s exploits on the offensive boards, and the Bulldogs dominated the backboards against an undermanned UCLA frontcourt Thursday. Gonzaga had 14 offensive rebounds in the second half and outrebounded by Bruins by 24 for the game, and those extra possessions were key in the Bulldogs rallying from a 13-point halftime deficit. Limiting second chances can really slow down the UConn offensive attack, and if Gonzaga can steal a few possessions offensively it could change the calculus against an elite UConn defense.
UConn will win if…
Jordan Hawkins gets hot from distance. The sophomore guard is the lynchpin of UConn’s offensive attack because of his ability to shoot the three, and when he’s on it’s nearly impossible to slow this team down. He was held scoreless in both first halves in Albany against Iona and Saint Mary’s, and UConn was outscored by one across those 40 minutes. But when Hawkins heats up (like he did in the second half in Albany and all game against Arkansas), the Huskies have rolled, outscoring their NCAA tournament opponents by 63 across the other 80 minutes.
UConn’s dominance at the rim puts so much pressure on the opposing defense: Hurley often refers to the Huskies delivering “body blows” to their opponents with their physicality inside. The threes Hawkins hits often feel like knockout punches. This offensive attack becomes that much more dynamic with a locked-in Hawkins.
Gonzaga will win if…
Its guards outplay UConn’s.Timme has enough of a March résumé at this point that we can expect a big-time performance from the senior post player. But his scoring can only take Gonzaga so far (see: the Bulldogs’ struggles in the first half against UCLA despite Timme’s 19 points). The Bulldogs turned to bench guards Malachi Smith and Hunter Sallis over starters Rasir Bolton and Nolan Hickman in the second half against UCLA, opting for a better defensive look against the Bruins’ physical guards. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see more of that against UConn, though Hickman and Bolton do possess more offensive upside.
UConn is very beatable when its guards don’t play well. Gonzaga is very hard to beat when its guards do play well. Mark Few’s team needs to win that matchup to knock off the Huskies.