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Takeaways: UConn is Final Four-bound, just like we all predicted

This has been a remarkable breakout in Dan Hurley’s fifth season.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament West Regional-UCONN vs Gonzaga Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

UConn men’s basketball reached its sixth Final Four on Saturday night and did it in style as the Huskies demolished 3-seed Gonzaga, 82-54.

It was utter domination on both ends of the floor. Dan Hurley’s defense quieted the most efficient offense in the country while exposing the Bulldogs’ comparatively weaker defense.

Some thoughts on UConn’s epic beatdown:

This team is peaking at the right time

McGrath: Headed into Saturday night, Gonzaga was the most efficient offense according to KenPom. UConn played arguably its best defensive game, holding the Bulldogs to 0.75 points per possession. It was the Huskies’ third-most efficient performance on the defensive end, behind Stonehill and the road game against Butler. They did it without forcing turnovers, as Mark Few’s squad had a turnover rate of just 12.5 percent, which was UConn’s third-worst rate of the season.

It was pure effort on the defensive end, with Gonzaga struggling to find anything that worked. Adama Sanogo and Donovan Clingan shut Drew Timme down to the tune of 5-14 from the field and the only Bulldog with an offensive rating over 100 on KenPom was Malachi Smith, who had eight points in 26 minutes.

While forcing more turnovers for easy baskets would be great, forcing misses in the half-court and limiting offensive rebounds can be a more sustainable way to win. The Huskies are at their peak right now due to a defense that can stop anyone and a multi-faceted offensive attack.

Give Andre Jackson his flowers

McGrath: There was one curious name missing from the West region’s all-tournament team: Andre Jackson. He’s often on triple-double watch and came close against Gonzaga, dishing 10 assists with zero turnovers against the Bulldogs, while averaging 8.5 rebounds per contest in Las Vegas.

Jackson does so many little things that a team needs to be successful and make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. When the team wasn’t playing well, he was one of the biggest scapegoats due to his poor shooting performance. He’s now locked in offensively and still doing the grunt work that helps take a team to the next level. UConn wouldn’t be here without him.

Dan Madigan: It’s hard to overstate how impactful Jackson was against Gonzaga. With Drew Timme unable to contain Adama Sanogo, Timme sagged off Jackson with the hopes of making him beat Gonzaga from deep. Instead, Jackson was an active back door cutter and had numerous wide opens dunks off of passes from Sanogo. The offense was just a bonus, as Jackson was an incredible facilitator once again while playing his usual impactful defense. He seemingly had eyes in the back of his head to find the open man time after time.

If Jackson is playing like this, there might not be a team in the country that can beat the Huskies. His ability to be efficient as a scorer and passer unlocks another level for this offense, especially in transition.

Aman: The only reason people don’t give Jackson enough credit is they’re only looking at point-per-game totals. That has to be the only reason.

Total Domination

Madigan: So much for the region of death. UConn just blew through objectively the hardest region of the 2023 tournament with ease, winning by an average of 22.5 points per game. Outside of Iona — coached by Hall of Famer Rick Pitino — the three other UConn opponents were in the top 25 of KenPom.

The Huskies are just the fifth team ever to own a plus-90 or better scoring margin heading into the Final Four since 2000, joining 2021 Gonzaga, 2008 and 2009 North Carolina, and UConn’s 2009 Final Four team. They’re also just the 10th team in NCAA tournament history to win each of their games by 15-plus points. Another team that did that? UConn in 2004.

A gutsy weekend from Adama Sanogo

Madigan: In observance of Ramadan, Sanogo is fasting from sunrise to sunset for about the next month. This means he had nothing to eat or drink all day when he had 18 points and eight rebounds against Arkansas and didn’t do the same until around halftime of the Gonzaga game, where he posted a 10-point, 10-board double-double. Given all of those factors, it makes his performance in Las Vegas all the more impressive. Sanogo has been transcendent all tournament and teamed up with Donovan Clingan to dominate the alleged best big man in the game in Timme.

Jordan Hawkins deservedly took home West Region Most Outstanding Player honors, and Sanogo earned a spot on the All-Region team, but Sanogo’s presence in the post makes this offense go. The attention needed to contain him allows shooters like Hawkins and Alex Karaban to roam freely. His growth as a passer, evidenced by tying a career-high with four assists, has made him almost impossible to double-team, and he remains a menace on the boards of both ends. If Sanogo can keep it up for one more weekend, he’s closer to cementing himself alongside the likes of Emeka Okafor as one of the best big men in program history.

Over-achieve much?

Aman: This year’s UConn team came into the regular season with modest expectations, then quickly raised them by looking like the best team in the country through 14 games, and then hit a rough patch in conference play.

Expectations swung back toward looking for the bare minimum: one NCAA Tournament win or maybe a Sweet 16 appearance. The fact that the Huskies had yet to advance under Hurley and another disappointing ending to the Big East Tournament had limited expectations going into the Iona game.

In Albany, UConn won two games comfortably but still, it felt like some evil powers loomed.

In Las Vegas, UConn became that evil power. The Huskies tormented Arkansas and Gonzaga with stifling defensive performances and threw enough Adama Sanogo and shooting at them with a dash of Jackson’s playmaking to put them on their heels and, eventually, their asses. There are not many teams that win their regional semifinal and final by 23 and 28 points, respectively.

The Huskies head to Houston as the No. 1 team in KenPom and the Vegas favorite to win it all. This team’s place on the list of all-time Husky teams is an argument we can all enjoy having through next weekend as they write the final chapter of the story.

We don’t know what the future holds, but in the present, we can certainly acknowledge and appreciate that this is a special collection of players and they’ve accomplished quite a bit, returning the Husky program to prominence and doing it with a ton of swag.

See you in Houston!