SEATTLE (AP)—To Gonzaga, Hasheem Thabeet might as well be as tall as the Space Needle.
Connecticut’s reigning national defensive player of the year is only 7-foot-3, but he’ll seem as towering as the landmark next door when he’s inside KeyArena on Saturday and his No. 2 Huskies (9-0) are playing the eighth-ranked Bulldogs (8-1).
It’s one of the best non-conference matchups of the early season—unless you take Gonzaga coach Mark Few’s word for it.
“Just incredible, physically imposing bodies,” Few said, marveling at UConn. “Athleticism, off the charts. I mean, they are the most physically imposing team in college basketball.”
Uh-oh. The inside game has been the one glaring weakness on Few’s otherwise-loaded team.
The Zags’ only loss came a week ago against Arizona when Wildcats center Jordan Hill trumped them with 22 points. Josh Heytvelt, Gonzaga’s de-facto center and leading scorer, disappeared that day with a season-low six points.
“I didn’t see the (Arizona) game. Gonzaga is a good team. … He’s a good player,” Thabeet said of Heytvelt on Friday, after Connecticut’s light practice. “I’m not looking forward to playing against him. I’m looking forward to playing against Gonzaga.”
Heytvelt is 6-11 and listed as a center. But Heytvelt, who scored 21 points Thursday night in Gonzaga’s rout of Texas Southern, shoots 3-pointers and floats around for jumpers more than he bangs down low.
Same with 6-11 Austin Daye, a smooth sophomore and Gonzaga’s second-leading scorer.
Their best move against UConn might be drawing Thabeet away from the basket on offense—he is No. 2 behind Emeka Okafor at Connecticut with 299 blocked shots—and ducking for cover while trying to defend the Huskies’ second-leading scorer (14.9 points per game, with 12.1 rebounds).
Connecticut also has 6-7 forward Jeff Adrien, who is averaging 14.4 points and 9.2 rebounds. His 36 career double-doubles are more than any other player currently in the Big East.
Plus, a Gonzaga spokesman confirmed Friday that Robert Sacre, the Zags’ 7-foot reserve, will miss his third consecutive game. He’s still recovering from surgery on his foot in October.
“(Connecticut) is a national championship-caliber team. We’re going to have to play A-plus to get it done,” Few said. “But it’s a great challenge for us. To have it in Seattle, to have it sold out, it’s a great opportunity for us.”
The Huskies are so big and so deep, they have a 7-footer stashed on their bench with a high-school All-America from last season. Center Jonathan Mandeldove, a junior, has played a total of 2 minutes this season. Heralded freshman guard Kemba Walker is averaging 11.1 points per game.
Yet before Few goes Lou Holtz with his poor little Bulldogs, he can recall his team beat Connecticut last December.
Thabeet had just six points before fouling out of that game in Boston. And it wasn’t Heytvelt who won it—he was out while recovering from a foot injury. Inconsistent guard Jeremy Pargo slashed and soared for 23 points that day and will be key to Gonzaga’s chances Saturday.
“This is a great game to show we’re ready for the Big East now,” said Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, who’s won 783 of his 1,120 games as a college head coach but has never coached a game in Seattle. “You beat a Gonzaga, you’re ready for the Big East—physically, you’re ready to play high-quality teams.”
Calhoun said he scheduled this return game, Gonzaga’s annual contest in Seattle across Washington state from its campus in Spokane, for this season because he knew his Huskies wouldn’t be the pups they were while going 21-6 but losing to San Diego in the first round of the NCAA tournament last season.
“If you have an all-freshman team, I wouldn’t be out here,” Calhoun said. “We think we have a pretty good basketball team. And it’s great for traveling— and testing.”
Few lamented a “pretty hectic” effort of trying to get away Friday from a snowstorm that dumped almost two feet of snow on Spokane. The Zags didn’t practice in Seattle Friday afternoon as scheduled because they were still stuck home.
But Gonzaga hopes another of the raucous crowds that have flocked to its annual games in Seattle against top national opponents will make the trip worth it.
“Hopefully that will help,” Few said. “We need everything we can get.”