Dec. 19, 2008

By Anthony Oliva

It's time for round four.

UConn and Gonzaga may have only met three times ever, with all three games played on neutral courts, but every one of those games between these now-perennial heavyweights has been a thriller. And for two teams who look to be just about the most unlikely of rivals - one, a Northeastern public school with a long basketball pedigree, the other, a private, Jesuit school in the Pacific Northwest - this battle is quickly becoming the nation's best.

On Saturday, they'll reprise the rivalry, meeting in Key Arena for what's being dubbed the Battle of Seattle. And time around, when the No. 2 Huskies meet the No. 8 Bulldogs (4 p.m. ET), the country may bear witness to the best game between the two yet. Already hyped as one of the matchups of the year, and certainly one of the best of the early season, it highlights a Saturday that features five matchups between top-25 teams.

If the past is any indicator, that expectation looks pretty dead-on.

In 1999, the team's first ever meeting, the powerhouse UConn squad lead by Richard Hamilton defeated Cinderella Gonzaga in a 67-62 classic in the Elite Eight, on its way to Connecticut's first ever Final Four appearance and national championship.

Looking back, that game in 1999 was a turning point for both programs. UConn had been one of the nation's premier programs for years, but had not been able to get over the hump and get into the Final Four or win a national championship. It was that win over the small Jesuit school that thrust them into the national spotlight.

As for Gonzaga, in 1999 it was still playing the role of lovable underdog, bursting onto the national scene with the school's first-ever win in the NCAA Tournament. But ever since that loss to the eventual national champ, Gonzaga has made it to the Sweet 16 three times and has won eight WCC titles, establishing itself as one of the nation's best and most consistent programs.

The two teams didn't meet again until the 2006 EA Sports Maui Invitational where No. 3 UConn needed a Denham Brown jumper with 1.1 seconds left to escape with a 65-63 victory over the eighth-ranked Zags.

And most recently they met in Boston in last year's Hall of Fame Classic. This time, Gonzaga was finally able to upend the Huskies, 85-82. And once again, it came down to the wire, as UConn's A.J Price just missed a three-point shot that would have tied the game it at the buzzer.

"It's the same team," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said, referring to last year's UConn team. "That team was really good last year and now they got them all back."

Although it is on a neutral court, Gonzaga holds the regional home-court advantage, since many Gonzaga fans are expected to make the trip from Spokane, Wash. to Seattle to support their team, despite the massive snow storm that has wrought havoc on the team's travel and practice plans over the last week.

The Zags will be looking to feed off the energy from the crowd as they look to move back up the rankings after a stumble last weekend. Even though they cruised to an 84-42 blowout win over Texas Southern on Thursday, Gonzaga recently suffered a setback, losing to unranked Arizona 69-64 last Sunday. The loss dropped the Bulldogs (9-1) from No. 4 to No. 8 in the AP Poll, and Few blamed his team's effort for the loss.

"We just didn't quite have as much energy as you need to have in big games," Few said of the Arizona game. "We've played a lot of big games and if you're not the more energetic one and the one willing to get on the floor and do those extra things, then you're probably not going to win a big game."

On the other hand, Connecticut (9-0) has looked every bit the No. 2 team in the nation. It has cruised through the early part of its schedule and has an average margin of victory of 21.6 points per game, albeit against clearly inferior opponents.

"(UConn is) off the charts athletically, off the charts ability-wise," Few said. "And then probably the most impressive thing about UConn is just how tough and hard-nosed they play. They rebound like that. They're a physically imposing team and you cant back down from that. You gottta step up and take that on, but there is no more physically imposing team in college basketball than Connecticut - with their size, with their athleticism, with their speed and with their mentality."

Gonzaga will counteract with a balanced scoring attack. Five Bulldogs average at least nine points a game and their starting point guard Jeremy Pargo averages 8.9 points while dishing out 7.6 assists per contest. Senior forward Josh Heytvelt leads the team with 15.7 points per game.

If there were any concerns about Gonzaga after the loss to Arizona, Thursday's dismantling of a Texas Southern team that showed the ability to hang with No. 5 Texas in their Dec. 16 matchup, dismissed any of them.

"I thought our guys did a great job dealing with all the distractions or excuses that could have been there, or even the aspects of coming off their first loss and maybe not playing with as much confidence or as much energy as they needed to, but they put all those aside and they came out and did what they needed to do," Few said. "We got it going with our defense and our rebounding. We got those two things back squared away pretty good."

UConn is a major test for Gonzaga, which will face a brutal schedule all year. Few wanted to toughen his team up for March and the Bulldogs have already faced Oklahoma State, Maryland, Arizona and Tennessee and still have matchups with Memphis, Utah and another with Tennessee, to go along with their WCC slate. Still, no test may be harder than the super-talented and deep Huskies.

The speedy Jerome Dyson leads UConn in scoring with 15.4 points per game, but Hasheem Thabeet and Jeff Adrien dominating the post is what keys UConn's success. Thabeet's offensive game is improving and the 7-foot-3 center is averaging 14.9 points per game to go along with 12.1 rebounds and 3.8 blocks per contest.

"If you see the difference between Thabeet last year and this year it's an amazing difference." Few said.

Adrien, who nearly averages a double-double with 14.4 points and 9.2 rebounds per game, is just one of the five Huskies that average double digits scoring.

One of UConn's biggest strengths is that not only is it 15th in the nation in scoring with 83 points per game, but it has shown the ability to also shut down opponents, holding them to only 60 points per game.

"They can really, really crank up the defense and can be really hard to score on," Few said. "They have experience across the board."

Both UConn and Gonzaga have been touted as legitimate Final-Four contenders, and this game will be an important measuring stick for both teams, and the rest of the nation will be watching.

"(UConn is) a national championship caliber team so we're going to have to play A-plus to get it done, but it's a great challenge for us, and to have it in Seattle and to have it sold out is a great opportunity," Few said.

It's a great opportunity for college basketball fans, too, because there is never a dull moment when these two team meet.