I would hesitate to use the “Game of the Year” moniker for tomorrow’s matchup between the #3 Iowa Hawkeyes (6-0) and #1 Gonzaga Bulldogs (3-0) but when the group who pays the schools to play the game dubs it as such, well, might as well further the #brand.
We’re just going to leave this here ... pic.twitter.com/GOYJhFDpGc— Sanford Pentagon (@SanfordPentagon) December 17, 2020
As such, let’s go to the tale of the tape:
Tale of the Tape
|#3 Iowa Hawkeyes||@ Sioux Falls, SD||#1 Gonzaga Bulldogs|
|#3 Iowa Hawkeyes||@ Sioux Falls, SD||#1 Gonzaga Bulldogs|
|5||Wins by KO||1|
|6' 5.6"||Height (per KenPom)||6' 6.4"|
|74.1||Reach (adj. Tempo)||75.6|
|42.5%||Stance (Off. 3PA / FG)||27.5%|
|Iowa City, IA||Hometown||Spokane, WA|
A couple things: first, knockouts are wins where the KenPom expected win percentage stayed above 99% for the final 5 minutes of the game. I’m also using some liberty in substituting the reach (tempo) and stance (offensive ratio of three-point attempts) because they are two of the defining characteristics between these teams.
While both of these teams are amongst the fastest in the country, they score their points in aggressively different ways. The Hawks are in the top 25% of teams shooting a proportion of their shots from behind the arc. Iowa compounds that by making 39.8% of them. Gonzaga, on the other hand, is in the bottom 25% and, with reason, as they’re making just 29.8% of them. In fact, Mark Few said that Luka Garza shoots the three better than anybody on his roster.
So naturally I’m gearing up for the Zags to absolutely fill it up from deep.
Head Coach: Mark Few (21st season)
Conference: West Coach Conference
Gonzaga came into the season #1 in the country as they returned four strong contributors and added their best high school recruit (Jalen Suggs) of Few’s tenure and a couple strong transfers. They made relatively quick work of Kansas and Auburn before playing more of a knockdown-dragout with West Virginia as they went without Suggs for an extended period of time following a leg injury.
Ahead of the WVU game, there was some COVID-19 concerns with the Zags. Those escalated into in the cancellation of the season’s other “Game of the Year” between Gonzaga and #2 Baylor. Since then, Zaga was off until just yesterday, team-wide.
From Mark Few zoom call (quotes courtesy of John Blanchette because my computer decided to shut down audio capability) pic.twitter.com/C0FNOkASOp— Jim Meehan (@SRJimm) December 17, 2020
Gamesmanship? Who knows. The Hawkeyes, though, won’t be taking them lightly. Through six games, Iowa hasn’t taken a single opponent lightly so expecting that might happen against the number one team in the nation because of Few’s rhetoric seems...unlikely.
Jalen Suggs (G, 6’4”, 205 lbs): The five-star recruit is, in my opinion, the biggest mismatch of the game. He’s got the size and speed to beat pretty much whomever Fran McCaffery can throw at him and is especially adept at attacking defenses through ball screens. His ability dictates as much as anything the likelihood of Iowa deploying a zone. Suggs has shot just six of his 30 shots from deep, making two. If the Hawks can force more shots from deep by the freshman, making roughly 33% of them, it’s probably a win.
It undersells just how easy it will be to stop Suggs as his statline 13.3 points, 6.3 assists, and 4.7 rebounds underestimates the way he can impact the game.
Drew Timme (F, 6’10”, 235 lbs): The sophomore will get first crack at Luka Garza tomorrow and can give as good as he gets against just about anyone. He’s the Zags’ leading scorer at 23.3 points per game (more than doubling last year’s 9.8) and operates primarily in the low post and as the main screener in Gonzaga’s offense.
I re-watched Gonzaga-West Virginia today because there's nothing else going on... They torched the Mountaineers in the second half with their 4-out spread ball screen actions pic.twitter.com/q3qGhP3rb6— Steven Karr (@SKarrG0) December 16, 2020
None of this is particularly fun to hear, as Iowa typically struggles with this group defending ball screens which is another reason to expect plenty of zone from the Hawkeyes.
Corey Kispert (F, 6’7”, 220 lbs): He’s GU’s best three point shooter (45%) but is much more than that as the #2 scorer at 22.3 points/game. The senior is also sinking an insane 78% of his shots inside the arc and is a strong secondary ballhandler who can stretch the Hawks in transition.
Can Iowa strike first? The Hawks have started impressively in four of their six games by going on 11-to-2-like runs or better against all but North Carolina Central and Northern Illinois. It has been a clear point of emphasis to start the season and will be even more important against their best opponent to date.
Perhaps the biggest question for a strong Hawkeye start is how might it happen. Against UNC, the Hawks forced the Tar Heels’ hand with relentless outside shooting to start. Versus many of Iowa’s other opponents, it’s been the Garza Show early and often. If Iowa can assert one area over the other, it will open other doors throughout the game.
Do the Hawkeyes play enough defense? Gonzaga has played three much stronger defenses than Iowa so far and have scored at will throughout each of the contests. It is not an indictment of the Hawks if they do not hold GU to 65 points. But, in a game which feels like it will end up in the 90s (at minimum), Iowa will have to lean on their seniority to be really smart situationally with defense: get back in transition, limit second chance opportunities, clamp down during huge possessions.
Nobody is under the guise this game will be played on a razor’s edge defensively but how Fran calls the game will provide insight into how he views that end of the floor. He used a full-time press against Northern Illinois. I expect a heavy dose of that as he throws the kitchen sink to propel the Hawks to victory.
Does Iowa look the part? This is Iowa’s biggest non-conference challenge of Fran McCaffery’s tenure, full stop. Everyone is aware of the stakes. While it would be great for the Hawkeyes to win, simply looking like they belong in that echelon of team with Gonzaga and Baylor will provide an important data point for seeding come March.
We all know they’ll be geared up but, as the great philosopher Mike Tyson says “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” If there is a weak link within Iowa’s rotation, it will be exposed offensively or defensively against Gonzaga.
Those weaknesses can be mitigated, of course, and those who could limit the damage - thinking Keegan Murray, Joe Toussaint, and Pat McCaffery - are light on experience and will not have faced a game like this before in their career.
Heck, Fran McCaffery has arguably not faced a challenge like this before.
Iowa has been very vocal about the kind of team they can be. Saturday’s contest will prove if the Hawks are who they thought they were.
While a loss of any margin does not seal Iowa’s fate, a win opens a Pandora’s box of possibilities this group can achieve.