Iowa averages 100.3 points per game, and besides Garza’s ridiculous averages of 29.2 points, 9 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game (rarely having played more than 25 minutes per contest), the Hawkeyes have three other players averaging double digits in points per game as well. And they are not just scoring in the paint. Many of Iowa’s players are absolute assassins from deep. Four players with significant minutes per game are listed as shooting 50% or higher from beyond the arc. Garza’s average from deep (and he’s not at all shy about shooting 3-pointers) is just a tad lower than his average in terms of overall field goal percentage. Garza is shooting a mind-boggling 69.1% from the field and an absolutely-baffling 68.4% from deep so far this season! Against Iowa State he went 6 for 7 from beyond the arc, 13-14 from the field, and had 34 points in 17 minutes.
So Gonzaga should just bow down to the new king and hand that #1 ranking over this coming Saturday? Not so fast, Hawkeye fans! The Bulldogs aren’t looking too shabby themselves. Having secured a 3-0 record in early-season play, the Zags had key wins over Auburn, the #5 Kansas Jayhawks and the now-#8 West Virginia Mountaineers before Covid put a halt to competition for them the last few weeks. It was, as I said in the last installment, a timely hiatus considering that their uber-talented freshman point guard, Jalen Suggs, likely had some rehab to do on his ankle to get back to 100% after tweaking it in that last contest against West Virginia on December 2nd. Had the game against Baylor been played on the 5th, he might not have been at his best.
While the Zags don’t have a player averaging near 30 points a game, they do have two players averaging over 20 points per game in the 3 contests they’ve played this season: Drew Timme with 23.3 and Corey Kispert with 22.3. Both are shooting just over 60% from the field. Though overshadowed at the moment by Luka Garza’s monster stats, both should and will be seriously considered for Player of the Year—especially if they play well against Iowa. Three other Zags join Timme and Kispert in averaging double-digit points per game: Joel Ayayi, Jalen Suggs and Andrew Nembhard. These three have been the muscle behind Gonzaga’s true strength: its unselfish basketball. Excellent passing has been a trademark of Mark Few’s teams for over 20 years. The Bulldogs find great shots for themselves and the team by passing the ball and relentlessly dissecting opposing defenses through ball movement. Their post play is excellent, they drive to the hoop extremely well, dish the ball when the drive is well-defended and they constantly push the ball in transition. West Virginia, the only team so far to have taken the lead from the Bulldogs for a considerable portion of the game (they led through most of the first half, and at halftime by a score of 39-34), can bear witness to Gonzaga’s precision passing attack and strength in transition. In the second half of that game, against a Mountaineers frontcourt that is among the best in College Basketball, Gonzaga scored 53 points, with assists on nearly every basket and numerous fast-break lay-ins and dunks, to turn the tide and find the win 87-82.
If fault is to be found, the Zags haven’t been hitting from deep nearly as well as Iowa. The only two players shooting over 30% from beyond the arc so far are freshman phenom, Jalen Suggs at 33.3% and Corey Kispert at 45%. Kispert has proven himself an excellent shooter and should get the most attempts from deep for Gonzaga this season and against Iowa on Saturday. The Hawkeyes will likely try to get in his face, but Kispert has really upped his dribble-drive game lately and will be a threat every time he touches the ball to either pull up and shoot or attack the rim. Though the deep ball hasn’t fallen as often as they’d like for any Zag players not named Kispert, Gonzaga hasn’t shown any difficulty getting points on the board against some elite competition. They average 93 points per game, and Gonzaga’s offense was ranked #1 according to Ken Pom before Iowa narrowly took over that #1 spot recently during the Bulldogs’ break in play.
Further fault might be found on Gonzaga’s defensive end. Though the Bulldogs’ defense has been nothing to snub and has resulted in many fast-break points off turnovers on the opponents end, they have allowed opponents to score 80+ points in two of the 3 games they’ve played so far. And if comparisons are going to be made, they have yet to show the ability to protect the rim in the way a Luka Garza offers Iowa down low. Giving up points may have something to do with the fast pace with which Gonzaga likes to play, but Iowa has only given up 80 points in one game so far—against North Carolina, and the Tarheels fell to the Hawkeyes 93-80.
Possible weaknesses aside, in the limited play they’ve seen so far, Gonzaga is hitting on all cylinders in the same way Iowa is—and against more highly-ranked competition. There is good reason Gonzaga has that #1 beside their name on the scoreboard. There’s also good reason Iowa has that #3—and in the murkiness that goes along with ranking teams at this point in a very odd season, who knows if #3 is actually any worse than #1? One of the great things about college basketball is that any team can beat any other if one plays well and/or the other plays poorly. As a Gonzaga fan, it’s my belief that the Bulldogs are going to come out on top Saturday and although Iowa is by no means going to be an easy hurdle to get over, with the talent the Zags have and Mark Few at the helm, Gonzaga has all the ability and basketball smarts they need to get a win this Saturday—and every confidence they can. So how do they do it? Let me offer up a few possibilities here.
The Zags need to run and push the tempo even harder than they’ve pushed it in the 3 games they’ve played so far. I think the Bulldogs are going to try to turn it up a few degrees in South Dakota, get down the court and score in transition, and hopefully beat Garza and any other big men to the bucket before they can offer any defense. And in that process, the Zags will see if they can tire the hell out of the Hawkeyes—especially the big ones.
In the same vein, I think Gonzaga will continue to press, like they have in the other games they’ve played this season. Defensive pressure off the inbound could disrupt Iowa’s ability to set up their offense comfortably and might lead to some steals and easy baskets. And Gonzaga’s quickness, length and athleticism is perfect for applying that pressure as opponents have found out already. I don’t think Iowa has seen a team like Gonzaga yet and I think the Bulldogs are going to give Iowa some serious trouble Saturday and rack up a good number of steals.
Gonzaga’s defense, particularly it’s ability to hound Garza down low, and to recover and rotate quickly to open shooters beyond the arc is going to have to be spot on to get the W on Saturday. Iowa is a tough cookie offensively because every team that has tried to bother Garza inside with double-teams and the like gets lit up from deep by Iowa’s excellent shooting. I think Gonzaga is going to employ some sneaky doubles on Garza and hound him with some collapsing guards, then utilize its quickness to rotate, recover and hopefully get a hand in front of any open shooters. One tactic Gonzaga utilized well on defense against West Virginia was to hound the rebounder after a miss on their offensive end—offering defense right away when the opponent got the ball. Joel Ayayi made 2 steals in a row late in the second half and helped seal the victory by sneaking up on Mountaineer big men who’d just pulled in a rebound and swatting the ball out of their hands—resulting in quick buckets, including a dagger 3 from Kispert.
Another thing the Zags will likely do is go after Garza on the offensive end as well as on defense. Against West Virginia, the Bulldogs finally put the Mountaineers away by drawing significant fouls on each of their best frontcourt players. Though not quite the hulk that Garza is down low, Drew Timme is very good at working around defenders and drawing fouls. His footwork is exceptional, and I think the battle down low between the quick and nimble Timme, and the brute excellence of Garza, (Beauty and the Beast again?) is going to be a lot of fun to watch. Though Timme hasn’t shown the same ability as Garza to shoot well from deep, Timme is definitely Gonzaga’s offensive powerhouse in the frontcourt and has a wide variety of offensive weaponry at his disposal. He gets down the court very quickly and has gotten numerous baskets streaking in transition. I think he’s going to do just that as often as he can to put some of the Iowa defense, Garza in particular, behind him—and tire Iowa out in the process. This is going to be his opportunity to show that he’s on par with the best in the nation and a legitimate candidate for Player of the Year, and I think Timme is going to rise to the challenge.
Anton Watson, Gonzaga’s other starting forward—though not the offensive threat Timme has proven to be yet—might be the Zags’ best full-court defender. He spearheads Gonzaga’s press and can guard any player from the fence to the post on the defensive end. If Timme finds any trouble dealing with Garza, Watson might get the assignment on Garza for significant minutes—or more likely, they will be trading the assignment constantly and doubling as necessary. The only other forward/center for Gonzaga who has found significant minutes in the rotation so far and who might be able to match up well against Garza’s bulk is Oumar Ballo. A native of Mali and an intimidating physical presence down low, Ballo will likely find a significant role in this game whether Watson or Timme find foul trouble or not. Ballo, who is definitely young and has been called “raw” in his play so far, has shown improve ment in every game he’s played and could find a more prominent role in the Gonzaga line-up this season should he prove himself effective on either end against the likes of Garza.
Gonzaga will have to be spot-on on defense Saturday but, as I said earlier, the key to Gonzaga’s excellence always rests in their ability to share the ball on offense. If they move the ball like they have so far against Kansas, Auburn and West Virginia they have a great chance to come out on top. If I haven’t talked this game up enough yet, let me just say: This is going to be a good one. I believe it’s going to be a close game for a good while, but that Gonzaga is going to pull away in the second half. Kispert is going to light up the scoreboard for the Zags and show that he has Player of the Year potential. Suggs is going to impress again like he did against Kansas and show that he has Player of the Year potential as well. Same goes for Timme who will step up and show everyone he’s on par with the likes of Garza. Free throw shooting will play a big role and I think the points are really going to flow. I suspect it’s going to be a game similar to the one against Kansas. I say 105-93, Gonzaga. I have been known to overshoot the score in the past in the favor of the Bulldogs, so if this isn’t a resounding victory, it’ll be the Zags in overtime, 111-108. Enjoy, and GO ZAGS!!!!
~ Clark Karoses