Almost three weeks ago, the Hawkeyes held the 10th best offense -- according to Kenpom's adjusted offensive efficiency -- in Indiana to 0.93 points per possession (PPP). On Friday, they put a bear trap on Davidson's offense to the tune of 0.81 PPP. Those are both great defensive performances and signs that Iowa's defense has vastly improved, but Gonzaga poses a different challenge than Indiana and Davidson. First of all, Iowa doesn't have the huge size advantage against the Zags that they had against the Hoosiers and the Wildcats. Secondly, Gonzaga actually plays defense. Where Indiana is 218th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency and Davidson is 193rd, Gonzaga is 37th. In other words, this Gonzaga team is a more complete squad that could give Iowa issues on both sides of the ball.
Of course, Iowa could definitely win this game. It's just all a matter of which Iowa team will show up tonight. If it's the Iowa we saw against Penn State, then it could get real ugly, real fast. But if it's the Iowa we've seen over seven of their last eight games, then the Hawkeyes could be headed to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1999.
When Iowa has the Ball
As you can tell by the chart, Gonzaga is not Davidson on the defensive end of the floor. The only similarity to Davidson is that the Zags play a non-aggressive type of defense that doesn't focus on getting steals or forcing turnovers. Instead, they are looking to keep their man in front of them and contest every shot. And contest everything they do:
(Shot charts courtesy of Shot Analytics.)
On the season, opponents have struggled to shoot the ball well against this defense. They have done decent on threes, but opponents have been held to just 40% from inside the three-point line. Gonzaga is below average when it comes to blocking shots too, which means they just do an amazing job of contesting and altering the trajectory of the basketball when it leaves their opponents' hands. And, as you can see from both charts, not only have they been great at protecting the rim, but they have been great at grabbing defensive rebounds, and keeping their opponents off the free throw line, too.
So what can Iowa do on this end of the court?
Well, they are going to have to run their offense to near perfection. And they definitely could. The Hawkeyes were held to under a point per trip on offense just three times in conference play this season, and the Big Ten has some great defenses. Maryland was a similar defense that did everything well except for creating turnovers, and they also had the size to match Iowa. But the Hawkeyes handled them with no problem.
As usual, Iowa is going to have to play to their strengths in this one. Against Davidson, my only complaint about the offense was that they got lazy and settled for a lot of mid-range jumpers. Sure, a lot of them fell, but Gonzaga isn't four inches shorter at every position, and they sure as hell will contest those shots better than the Wildcats did. Iowa needs to get the ball to Aaron White, Adam Woodbury, and Gabe Olaseni in the post and Jarrod Uthoff can't afford to have a quiet night on the scoring front, either. The Hawks will also likely need a good performance from their guards because both Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. are very good for Gonzaga. Iowa could really benefit from Peter Jok and Josh Oglesby hitting their threes, but I really hope Mike Gesell can continue his excellent play. If he's slashing through the defense and handing out assists, it should be a great night on offense. But if he's not... well, you know.
Lastly, my other main concern outside of how well the guards will play, is how Iowa will shoot the ball near the rim. In the Hawkeyes' last two losses, one of their biggest problems was not being able to finish near the basket. In their loss to Penn State they made just 36% of their attempts by the cylinder and in their loss at Northwestern, that number was 35%. Gonzaga not only has the length inside, but they have the size to get physical and make things difficult in close proximity to the basket. I don't possess the power of prediction, but I would say that Iowa will lose this game if they have another bad shooting night around the rim.
On one hand, I think Iowa can do fine on offense because they did fine all through Big Ten play against some really tough defenses. On the other hand, Gonzaga contests shots really well and we've seen Iowa's offense go flat when they struggle around the basket. I'm calling this a toss up.
When Gonzaga has the Ball
Not only does Gonzaga's defense pose a different challenge to Iowa, but so does their offense. Unlike Davidson, Gonzaga isn't all that reliant on the three-point shot. They do shoot the ball well from outside (40% on the year), but they take an above average amount of their attempts from closer in, where they are hitting on almost 57% of their shots this season. Additionally, this Zags team doesn't turn the ball over. Ever. Those are their two main strengths, while they are just about average when it comes to pulling down offensive rebounds and drawing fouls.
Now, Gonzaga isn't particularly slow or fast when it comes to tempo, but judging by the fact that their offensive rebounding numbers are a lot lower than their defensive rebounding numbers, and the fact that they are a really tall team, I'm guessing Mark Few doesn't put a huge emphasis on offensive rebounding and would rather his team get back on defense. Iowa's transition offense has really come alive lately, so it will be interesting to watch how this plays out in this game.
But back to Iowa on defense.
The Hawkeyes were an up and down defensive team during conference play, which is why their numbers look kind of middling. At the start of conference play they looked like they had reverted back to last year's porous defense, but this unit has really started to look a whole lot better over the last eight games. And for as much as we could claim that it has everything to do with the competition getting easier during the back-end of Iowa's schedule, they have more than stepped up to the challenge against the high-powered offenses of Indiana and Davidson.
So, what should we expect?
Gonzaga averages 36 points per night from their front court trio of Kyle Wiltjer, Przemek Karnowski, and Domantas Sabonis. Luckily, Iowa is also a team that is good at protecting the rim:
They will need that to continue in order to take away the biggest strength of this Gonzaga team. As important as White, Woodbury, and Olaseni are on offense, they will also likely be that important on defense. I wouldn't be surprised to see more zone against Gonzaga than we saw against Davidson.
And then there is the whole three-point thing. Gonzaga shoots them less often than the average Division I team, but Iowa's opponents are shooting them a much higher rate than the Division I average, too. And what makes that so scary is that the Zags are shooting 40% from out there this year. Both guards in Pangos and Bell can knock down the triple, and Kyle Wiltjer is also a threat from out there. Iowa is going to need to be able to show they can continue to close out on the perimeter the way they have over the last eight games.
The numbers lean toward Gonzaga, but I feel confident that Iowa matches up with this offense pretty well. I'm probably 100% wrong here, but I'm also calling this side of the ball a draw.
Team Shooting Tendencies
Be warned, Gonzaga's shot chart is going to give you nightmares.
I warned you.
Like we saw with Davidson, Gonzaga is a better shooting team from the floor than Iowa is. But Iowa is better from the free throw line, and gets there more often.
On defense, both teams are great at contesting two-point field goal attempts, but Gonzaga is just incomprehensibly good. Both teams are also having an almost average percentage of treys fall against them this season.
Iowa is still the more two-point heavy team, but Gonzaga isn't all that far behind. Gonzaga's defense is better at limiting their opponent's three-point attempts, though.
Finally, both teams get most of their production from inside the perimeter. However, Iowa then gets more of their production at the foul line, while the Zags pick it up from beyond the arc.
Opposing Players to Know
Kyle Wiltjer should have been on your radar before this game, but if playing out on the west coast kept you from being familiar with him, you should get real familiar, real fast.
Wiltjer is basically just a shorter iteration of Frank Kaminsky. At 6'10" and 240 lbs., Wiltjer is mainly a power forward for Gonzaga, but he will play center at times as well. He will also shoot and score from anywhere on the floor.
He's got the 10th best offensive rating and the 36th best eFG% in the nation, according to Kenpom, because he's connecting on 57% of his twos and 47% of his threes this year. He also doesn't turn the ball over and is pretty solid on the defensive glass. Averaging almost 17 points per game, Wiltjer is the biggest threat on this Gonzaga team. His versatility can give opposing teams problems, so Mark Few likes to use him in the pick-and-pop game to get him open looks from three. Aaron White gets the honor of guarding him, so let's hope White's versatility can help limit Wiltjer's damage.
After Wiltjer, this offense is managed by senior point guard, Kevin Pangos. I don't watch a lot of Gonzaga basketball, but I feel like I have heard Pangos' name mentioned around this time of year for the last ten years. Anyway, he's averaging 11.7 points per game, and he really likes to shoot from outside.
He takes about 63% of his attempts from deep, so he's one of the main three-point threats to keep an eye on. But he's not just a score-first point guard. He does have the highest assist rate on the team and a low turnover rate to accompany it. He's just a really good overall player.
Joining Pangos in the back court, Gary Bell Jr. is a shooting guard that takes about 61% of his shots from long distance and is hitting on 37% of those attempts this year. He doesn't do a whole lot of anything else, though, besides play solid defense. But the Hawks should definitely have he and Pangos marked on the perimeter.
Moving back to the low post, we should talk about the awesomely named Przemek Karnowski. This 7'1" 288 lb. Polish national is scoring 11 points per game this season and is extremely effective when he gets the ball near the basket.
He's making 61% of his shots this year, because all but one of them has come inside the three-point line. He doesn't draw many fouls, but he does get an okay amount of offensive rebounds (not nearly as many as you would expect from a 7-footer, but it's probably the system). He's really a bull down low, and one that Iowa will likely need Adam Woodbury to tame. He's also one of the reason's I could see Iowa using a lot of zone tonight.
And after Karnowski, we get Domantas Sabonis. Why, yes, he is the son of Arvydas Sabonis. He is Gonzaga's main post guy off the bench, and will come in to spell Wiltjer at the four and Karnowski at the five. Sabonis is only a freshman, but the bloodlines are shining through already, as he is averaging 9 points per game, has the 118th best offensive rating in the country and is the 37th and 41st best offensive and defensive rebounder to boot. He's also one of the few guys on this team that is capable of earning his way to the foul line at a high rate. He may be young, but the Zags don't lose much of anything when he comes into the game.
Lastly, at the small forward position, Kyle Dranginis is the starter. However, he's a really low usage guy that doesn't do much on offense. Again, I don't watch much Gonzaga basketball, but I imagine he at least plays good defense or he wouldn't get the kind of minutes he does. But Byron Wesley comes off the bench and plays about as much as Dranginis does and provides more offense. Wesley is putting up almost 11 points per game off the bench this season, and he does that by being more of a slasher than a three-point shooter. At 6'5" 210 lbs., he's got a big enough body to finish through contact at the basket, and his slashing ways allow him to be a threat to get to the free throw line at a nice clip.
Those are the seven main players we should see Gonzaga throw at Iowa. They are 236th in the nation when it comes to bench minutes, and don't use a very deep rotation. When Pangos needs a breather, they will usually move Bell over to the point and Wesley over to the two guard. And they will almost always have one of Wiltjer and Karnowski on the floor. If one of them needs a rest, then Sabonis will come on.
What Kenpom Thinks
Kenpom Team Rankings: Iowa #18, Gonzaga #8
Projected Score: Iowa 67 (34%), Gonzaga 71 (66%)
Projected Points Per Possession: Iowa 1.05, Gonzaga 1.11
Projected Possessions: 64
Unsurprisingly, Kenpom's numbers have Gonzaga winning this on the strength of their offense. The numbers see both offenses going over the 1.00 PPP mark, but Gonzaga's going just a bit further. In all honesty, I can see that. I can see Iowa's offense sputtering near the basket and because of bad guard play. On the other hand, I can also see Iowa's improved defense doing just enough that Aaron White and Jarrod Uthoff can lift the Hawkeyes to victory on the offensive end of the floor.
Like always, though, my usual response to what will happen in this basketball game is "Who knows?" I'm just hoping that good Iowa shows up and we have another Junior Senior moment. Only this time it will be because Iowa is going to the Sweet 16.