UConn wraps up its non conference schedule with one final top-10 matchup, as the Huskies head west to take on Gonzaga at Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, Washington in a rematch of last year’s NCAA tournament West regional final. While Seattle is roughly four hours away from Gonzaga’s Spokane campus, this neutral site matchup in the Continental Tire Seattle Tip-Off should have plenty of Zags fans in attendance. Mark Few’s Bulldogs, while not as strong as in year’s past, provide yet another challenge for a battle-tested Huskies team that fought back on the road before falling to then-No. 5 Kansas and taking down No. 9 North Carolina at Madison Square Garden.
Gonzaga beat two opponents that UConn has already played this season — Mississippi Valley State and Arkansas Pine Bluff — by a total of 78 points this season. The Huskies beat those two teams by 72 points.
Radio: UConn Sports Network
Odds: UConn -5, over/under 149.5
KenPom Predicted Score: UConn 76, Gonzaga 74 | 58 percent win probability
UConn and Gonzaga have faced off five times in the past, with the Huskies holding a 4-2 advantage all time. The two most recently faced off in last year’s Elite 8, where UConn blew out the Bulldogs 82-54 in Las Vegas to advance to the Final Four and later secure the program’s fifth title. The Huskies also beat the Zags in 1999 in the Elite 8 to win their first national championship. Aside from their two NCAA tournament matchups, UConn has beaten Gonzaga in Maui, Hawaii and Seattle in instant classics in regular season play, while the Bulldogs beat UConn in the Bahamas and in Boston.
The two schools signed a multi-year agreement to play after the Huskies cut down the nets last season. After this matchup in Seattle, the plan is currently for Gonzaga to take on UConn at Madison Square Garden next season.
What to watch for
Gonzaga won its last game against Mississippi Valley State 78-40, but before that, took a tough road loss to in-state rival Washington. The Bulldogs have a lot of new pieces from last year’s Elite 8 team, so that road environment was a tough test and experience gained that the players will draw from against UConn. For UConn, the Huskies bounced back admirably against North Carolina after battling the Phog in Lawrence, Kansas. But that UNC tilt was a ‘home’ game in the comfortable confines of Madison Square Garden. A cross country, west coast road game at 10 p.m. eastern time is UConn’s second true road test, but their first real chance to show they can handle hostile environments.
The Bulldogs have a lot of intriguing pieces but they really miss Steele Venters, the Big Sky Player of the Year last year at Eastern Washington who’s out for the season with a knee injury. He was supposed to be the missing link that allowed forward Anton Watson to play at his natural four position. Venters’ absence means Few lacks a plus shooter to unlock that sweet, sweet spacing that all elite college basketball teams exploit these days. Against Purdue, Gonzaga missed 16-straight threes at one point. Against Washington, they missed 11 of their last 12 shots. You have to make shots to win at college basketball, folks. If role players Braden Huff and Ben Gregg are converting open looks, the Zags will be a handful.
Even if outside shots aren’t falling, Mark Few has an intriguing roster, with a steady, experienced point guard in old friend Ryan Nembhard from Creighton to go with a lefty post presence in Graham Ike, a Wyoming transfer and Gonzaga’s leading scorer. Nolan Hickman is a capable combo guard that gives the Zags a secondary ball handler with Nembhard. Dusty Stromer has been productive for a freshman in Venters’ place.
Point Guard Battle
The Nembhard versus Tristen Newton matchup will be fun. The former Creighton point guard has fit in seamlessly at Spokane, averaging 11.8 points and 5.7 assists per game. While the three ball remains missing (19% from downtown), he’s a shifty, undersized guard that is adept at creating looks for himself and others. In his three games against UConn for the Blue Jays though, he averaged only eight points per game, with three turnovers per game on 29% from the field. Newton’s size could envelop the smaller Nembhard, who has a tendency to get into the paint without a plan. UConn’s length up and down the roster should exploit that decision-making flaw.
For Newton, tonight is a chance to build on his All-American resume. His usage and efficiency are elite, and he’s become UConn’s safety net when offensive sets are sputtering. Games and matchups like these don’t phase the laid back Newton, so expect a lot of ‘phone calls’ from the Husky point guard.
After dealing with a myriad of minor injuries in the Kansas, North Carolina and Arkansas Pine Bluff games, the Huskies appear to be healthy heading into its third top-10 matchup in its last four games. Head coach Dan Hurley told reporters that everyone was healthy heading into the matchup with the Zags in Seattle and that freshman guard Stephon Castle will be able to play more minutes. Since returning against UNC from a knee injury he suffered earlier this season, Castle played 11 minutes against the Tar Heels, then 18 minutes against Arkansas Pine Bluff.
Hurley says Stephon Castle is available for more minutes tomorrow vs Gonzaga. "There's obviously elements where he is really going to help us."— Storrs Central (@StorrsCentral) December 15, 2023
Castle’s defensive versatility can really help contain Watson and Nembhard. Watson, a 6-foot-8 senior, is the Gonzaga’s best all-around player who averages 14 points and eight rebounds per game while shooting 58% from the field. His Evan Miya BPR is second in the country. Alex Karaban will probably draw the matchup on most sets — he scored 12 points in 22 minutes against him last year in the Elite 8 — but Castle’s length could be a failsafe in the event of foul trouble, or if Hurley wants to throw a different look out there.
We’ve seen UConn’s defense get attacked relentlessly at the four spot in the last year. Karaban’s effort has been commendable and he is in no way a bad defender, but Castle could step in in certain spots when there’s a big athleticism gap. Castle’s also shown an ability to check smaller guards, so it wouldn’t be crazy to see him on Nembhard as well.
After Castle, getting Clingan closer to 100% is an exciting notion for Husky fans. While Gonzaga’s KenPom defense sits 18th in the country, individually, there are matchups to exploit, namely Clingan’s size vs. the 6-foot-9 Ike. It’s also nice to know that Cam Spencer’s turf toe issues appear to be in the past. Let’s just hope that he keeps those same shoes he wore against the Tar Heels, because the Spencer we saw that night was playing at an All Big East level.
The quartet of Newton, Spencer, Clingan, and Karaban are all in the Top 15 in Evan Miya’s offensive BPR. If one or even two of those four are having an off game, the prevailing wisdom is that the other two won’t, and UConn’s offensive production will keep chugging along.
Zags are all gas, no brakes
Gonzaga teams, regardless of their talent, want to get out and run. Per KenPom, the Zags are 83rd in the country in adjusted tempo. The Huskies are 293rd. Nembhard is all gas no brakes, Watson can pull down a board and start the break, and Ike runs the the court well. The Bulldogs will want to avoid as many of UConn’s set defenses with Clingan and Samson Johnson anchoring the middle. If its a track meet, advantage Bulldogs. But beyond a fast break, Few likes to get as many quick, easy baskets as possible, so even if UConn’s transition defense is improved, they must be mindful of quick slips from Ike to the paint, or putting a body on a roaming Watson.
Drew Timme is not walking through that door. Neither is Jalen Suggs, Domantas Sabonis, Cody Kispert, or Chet Holmgren. Mark Few has turned Spokane into an NBA factory the last decade, but just because there are no Zags on NBA mock drafts for 2024 does it mean they are not a tough college basketball team. If the Huskies can pull out a win on the road, there’s a case to be made that this win will be more valuable in March than the non-conference dubs in the Garden.