College Basketball
UConn vs. San Diego State predictions: Keys for each team, players to watch, more
College Basketball

UConn vs. San Diego State predictions: Keys for each team, players to watch, more

Updated Apr. 3, 2023 1:30 p.m. ET

And then there were two.

After three weeks of thrilling March Madness action, 68 teams have been whittled down to a pair vying for a national championship on Monday night in Houston.

On one hand, you have UConn, a blue blood seeking its fifth national championship since 1999. On the other, you have San Diego State, a gritty veteran squad out of the Mountain West Conference enjoying its first moment on college basketball's biggest stage.

The Huskies are the big favorites (-7.5 via FOX Bet), yet the Aztecs have a way of keeping games close. Will the Huskies continue their dominant march to a championship? Can San Diego State shock the world? What must each team do to win? Our college basketball writers Andy Katz, John Fanta and Michael Cohen share their thoughts, analysis and picks below.



What excites you most about this game?

Andy Katz: A few things. If UConn can finish this off, it would be quite a cap to an amazing turnaround of one of the new-era blue bloods. Kevin Ollie led the Huskies to the national title in 2014. The program then hit some major speed bumps in the American and needed a reset after moving to the Big East. Dan Hurley was the top/best choice for the job. He has done a masterful job of getting this program back to the top. And if he wins, his family will have achieved the Holy Grail and landed a national title. It was wonderful to talk to Bob Hurley Sr., and Bobby Hurley in the stands Saturday night while watching Dan coach. The roles had been reversed. Dan grew up watching his brother Bobby play and his dad coach. And if they win the title, then the Huskies would validate all that they did this season. 

San Diego State could complete one of the biggest builds in the sport. The Steve Fisher/Brian Dutcher San Diego State build from 2000 to 2023 is quite remarkable. A national title would be the final piece. They don’t have to win it to get any more credibility, but this would certainly add an even bigger piece to the building project that seems to be complete. 

John Fanta: The war in the frontcourt is going to be must-see college basketball because the size and physicality of both teams are off the charts. UConn has the most dominant post presence in this NCAA Tournament with Adama Sanogo, who's averaged 20.2 points and 9.8 rebounds in the five big dance victories. With 7-foot-2 freshman Donovan Clingan behind him, head coach Dan Hurley has the luxury of riches at the 5.

But Brian Dutcher's Aztecs are unfazed by that because they are grown men. Nathan Mensah, the team leader in blocks with 63, is 24. Fellow center Aguek Arop and forward Jaedon LeDee are both 23. The stats don't even tell the story of how much of a backbone Mensah is to the Aztecs' equation, and the SDSU trio combined for 28 points in Saturday's buzzer-beating win over Florida Atlantic. How the game is officiated inside and whoever can impose their will in the paint will decide this game. SDSU has the experience and physicality to match up with Sanogo, but will the Aztecs be able to keep up with him?

Michael Cohen: Throughout his time at Connecticut, as well as during his previous stops at Rhode Island and Wagner, Hurley prides himself on morphing teams into sinewy collections of fighters who will rarely, if ever, be out-toughed on a basketball court. It's a trait he refers to as the team's calling card. Out on the West Coast, where San Diego State's Dutcher is averaging 25.2 wins per season since replacing the legendary Steve Fisher in 2017, the Aztecs approach their games with a similar level of blunt-force trauma. Dutcher's band of gritty and rugged defenders have put together the fourth-best defense in the country this season, a group that surrenders just 62.9 points per game and ranks among the top 40 in rebounding margin. 

San Diego State won't be bullied and won't be pushed around — at least that's what Dutcher is hoping for when the Aztecs face an equally bruising opponent in Hurley's Huskies. The toughness battle between UConn and San Diego State, between two of the top eight defenses in college basketball, should be a beautiful slugfest. 

Who is the most important player for each team in this game?

John: I'm going to the guards on this one: it's UConn's Jordan Hawkins and San Diego State's Darrion Trammell for me. I vote for Hawkins because when he makes a 3-pointer, it has an infectious nature on the rest of the team — it can also feel like more than three points with the way the Huskies have been defending. He's totaled 57 points in his last three games and has really hit his stride heading into Monday, where perimeter shot-making against SDSU will be imperative. 

Hawkins really has not had a cold spell in this tournament, and his ability to make contested shots can be demoralizing for a defense as well. Since just a five-point performance against Marquette in the Big East Tournament, the sophomore has averaged 16.4 points per contest in the last five. The other reason why he's the most important player is because if he has an off night, UConn isn't nearly as close as the same team on the perimeter. Hawkins makes a defense account for him at all times and allows others to benefit as well. He's on track to be a top-20 NBA Draft pick this June, and if he plays to the level he's capable of on Monday night, I have a hard time thinking San Diego State can win this game. 

As for the Aztecs, I'm zoning in on Trammell. The junior charged SDSU past No. 1 overall seed Alabama with a 21-point performance in the Sweet 16 upset victory. Against Creighton, he came up as the hero in the Elite Eight with big-time closing plays. While he can be a streaky shooter, the Aztecs are 11-0 when he makes multiple 3s, and his ability to make plays at the point guard slot and knock down the tough 2s will also be pivotal. As much as Matt Bradley is important as the team's leading scorer, Trammell can open up a different dimension to the Aztecs offense. Also, he will most likely be tabbed with stopping Tristen Newton, who's coming off an eight-assist performance against Miami. It's paramount that Trammell keeps Newton from finding the lane easily. If he can negate Connecticut's point guard and get cooking from the perimeter, it can change the title affair.

Michael: For UConn, redshirt freshman Alex Karaban is something of an unsung hero on this year's team. He never grabs the headlines the way Sanogo, Hawkins and Andre Jackson do, nor does he have the same magnetism — both literally and figuratively — as freshman center Donovan Clingan, the 7-foot-2 telephone pole who spells Sanogo. But as a stretch-four capable of knocking down perimeter shots and crashing the glass when required, Karaban plays a critical role. He's only averaging 4.5 rebounds per game this season, but he snagged nine against Miami in the Final Four and seven against Arkansas in the Sweet 16. How much, or how little, he helps Sanogo and Clingan on the glass could be a deciding factor against the Aztecs. He's also UConn's second-best 3-point shooter by percentage with a 40.4% clip this season.

For San Diego State, forward Jaedon LeDee gets the nod here because he's the player most likely to be guarding Sanogo. The 6-foot-9, 240-pound LeDee, who has plenty of size to contend with Sanogo, doesn't beat people with overwhelming height or girth, but his propensity to wind up in foul trouble is a legitimate concern. LeDee could only play 15 minutes in the win over Florida Atlantic because he drew three fouls at inopportune times, and he's averaged 4.3 fouls committed per 40 minutes this season. Shockingly, that number is significantly better than some of his foul rates the last two years at TCU: 8.6 fouls per 40 minutes in 2020-21 and 5.5 fouls per 40 minutes last season. LeDee will have to play with caution, restraint and discipline if the Aztecs want to cut down the nets. 

Andy: The bigs. Sanogo has the inside pole position to be the Most Valuable Player in the NCAA Tournament. He’s a tough cover. Mensah has been a rim protector and shot blocker for the Aztecs. But he cannot get into foul trouble. He must be a major factor. UConn has the more productive offensive guards. That’s not debatable. The Aztecs can defend the perimeter well. But they must be able to make shots or this could be over early. 

What must San Diego State do to stop a UConn squad that has dominated the tournament field so far?

Andy: The Aztecs have to contest the 3-point line. UConn has too many options around the perimeter. Joey Calcaterra, Newton, Hawkins, Karaban and Sanogo are all threats to make 3s. The Aztecs can only win if they make the Huskies take tough 3s.

John: Muck. It. Up. San Diego State has to make this an ugly game and cut off UConn from the perimeter with ball pressure. The Huskies have connected on 50 3-pointers in this NCAA Tournament. Yes, that's 10 per game. It's hard enough to combat what Sanogo, Clingan & Co. do in the frontcourt, but if you're also giving up perimeter shots, goodnight. The other factor is the perimeter shooting is not coming from one or two players, but the nine triples came from five different guys in Saturday night's win over Miami. 

The Aztecs have to take away 3s, and they also need to take the air out of the ball and try to grind UConn down in the process, as hard as that may seem. Getting high-percentage shots deep in the shot clock and connecting on those tough 2s is what can give an underdog a chance. Also, SDSU is here because it's gotten a wide variety of offensive contributions. The Aztecs can't just play through Bradley or Trammell for an extended period. They need that duo, LeDee and Lamont Butler to all be on their A-games. At times, SDSU was out of sorts offensively in the win over FAU. If that happens against UConn and leads to transition opportunities, that's going to be a challenge. The Aztecs need to have outstanding attention to detail, and they need to find their way to more offensive rebounds. Finally, you can't let UConn get on a 10-0 or 12-0 run in this game. The Huskies have an avalanche effect on games when they're getting stops. If SDSU gives up a run of that nature, the game is over.

Michael: Keep UConn off the glass. Evan Miyakawa, a Ph.D. statistician and data scientist, outlined what he believed was Miami's clearest path to success against the Huskies during a pre-game tweet on March 30. The Hurricanes entered the Final Four with a record of 22-1 in games when they had a higher offensive rebound percentage than their opponents. The only problem? UConn, as Miyakawa noted, hasn't been out-rebounded since early January. 

By the time Connecticut had disposed of Miami late Saturday night, the Huskies were plus-nine in rebounding to the delight of their head coach. The final numbers for offensive rebounding rate were 42% for Connecticut and 33% for Miami. Keeping UConn away from the offensive glass should be San Diego State's chief focus during the short turnaround ahead of Monday's national title game. The Aztecs rank 68th in the country in opponent offensive rebounding percentage by limiting their foes to a 25.9% rate on missed shots. Connecticut is second in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage at 38.6% and tied for 10th in offensive rebounds per game at 13.1 this season. Something, as they say, will have to give. 

What can UConn do to overcome the Aztecs' stingy defense and avoid an upset?

John: Give San Diego State a taste of its own medicine. Connecticut's offense and depth have received plenty of praise, but the way this team has defended is why the Huskies are here. When they lost six out of eight in January, UConn's man-to-man defense was, as Hurley described it, "pathetic." But the Huskies have guarded at a high level throughout the course of the last three weeks, holding elite offensive teams in Miami and Gonzaga to 32% and 33% from the floor, respectively. If UConn disrupts SDSU and forces an already inconsistent offense into a rut, this could be another Huskies blowout — they have won their five tournament games by a combined 103 points. If UConn is racking up stops, it creates open-floor opportunities and transition looks. That's where San Diego State could be in a lot of trouble.

The other big factor will be officiating. Keeping Sanogo out of foul trouble will be important to avoid the upset. If he owns the matchup on the interior again and beats Mensah, there will not be any shot of an upset.

Michael: Aside from having Sanogo and Clingan rack up points or fouls on the interior, the cleanest path for UConn to separate itself from San Diego State is with 3-point shooting. After consecutive first-round NCAA Tournament losses in which the Huskies shot poorly both times, Hurley placed a huge emphasis on adding capable shooters through the transfer portal. The trio of Newton, Nahiem Alleyne and Calcaterra has combined to make 124 shots from beyond the arc this season to provide some ballast for 3-point gunner Hawkins (107 made 3s). Taken together, the Huskies are shooting 36.3% from long range compared to 35.2% a year ago and 33.5% the year before that. 

Their average of 9.1 made 3s per game ranks sixth nationally among schools from power conferences, and they score 34.8% of their points from 3-point range. That last statistic is where the biggest disparity between UConn and San Diego State truly lies. The Aztecs only score 28.2% of their points from beyond the arc, which ranks 269th nationally, and they only shoot 34.3% from downtown. By running San Diego State's limited band of shooters off the 3-point line and then cashing in with triples of their own, UConn has a chance to distance itself from the Aztecs in a hurry.

Andy: The Huskies just have to keep applying the pressure. I don’t expect them to get rattled at all. UConn hasn’t faced second-half adversity at all during the tournament. If that trend continues then Huskies will be fine. San Diego State is unlikely to build a double-digit lead. Rather, they'll try to keep it a close game and sneak out a W. The Aztecs have come back from double figures quite a bit, including 14 against Florida Atlantic. But UConn won’t take its foot off the pedal. The Aztecs cannot get behind like that or else they are in serious trouble.

Prediction time! Who takes the crown?

Michael: Connecticut. With the amount of confidence UConn gained from five NCAA Tournament victories by 103 combined points — obliterations of Iona, Saint Mary's, Arkansas, Gonzaga and Miami guiding Hurley's team to the precipice of immortality — it's hard to see the Huskies wobbling now. They're bigger, faster and more skilled than the Aztecs, who hang their hats on defense and hope to drag opposing teams into the muck. But this Connecticut team won't wobble. The Huskies have imposed their will on every team they've faced thus far, and doing it again on Monday means celebrating their fifth national title in the last 25 years. A season said to be bereft of dominant teams found one just in time.

Andy: UConn. Look, this has been an unpredictable tournament. But the most predictable aspect of the tournament has been UConn winning by double figures. The Aztecs are capable of pulling off the shocker. But the Huskies are too deep, confident and hard to guard for one of the best defensive teams in the field. UConn would have been a 1- or 2-seed had it not had a mid-Big East slide. Remember, this team was 14-0 and No. 2 in the country. Take away the January slide the Huskies have been one of the best teams all season long. 

John: If San Diego State can impose its style, this can be a competitive game because the Aztecs are a drag-it-out type of team. If you're not shooting the basketball well from distance, you're going to be in a real war.

That being said, I don't see any way UConn is losing this game. The Huskies have put to bed the idea that there is no dominant team in college basketball. AP National Coach of the Year Shaka Smart of Marquette said it best at his awards press conference on Saturday: "They have an overflowing amount of depth, but most importantly, they have three great players putting up their best basketball at the perfect time." 

Sanogo, Hawkins and Jackson can't be stopped and when you combine that star power with a legit 8-man rotation, this is a freight train right now. 

Connecticut will capture its fifth national championship since 1999 on Monday night.

Andy Katz is a longtime college basketball writer, analyst and host. He can be seen on the Big Ten Network, as well as March Madness and, and he hosts the podcast "March Madness 365." Katz worked at ESPN for nearly two decades and, prior to that, in newspapers for nine years.

John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.

Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13.

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