Iowa’s Luka Garza, the CBS Sports Preseason National Player of the Year, took 18 shots, made 13 of them and finished with 30 points and 10 rebounds. Gonzaga’s top two scorers, Drew Timme and Corey Kispert, both fouled out. And if that’s all you knew about Saturday’s showdown between the teams ranked first and third in the Associated Press Top 25 poll, there’s no way you’d accurately guess the outcome.
Here’s the outcome: No. 1 Gonzaga 99, No. 3 Iowa 88.
In other words, Iowa got a great performance from its All-American, fouled out Gonzaga’s top two scorers, and still couldn’t stay within single digits of the favorite to win the national title. That’s how loaded the Zags are this season. They have a million different players who can beat you a million different ways.
“They’ve got a lot of weapons,” said Iowa coach Fran McCaffery.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few entered the weekend with real concerns about how his players would respond after not playing a regular-season game for 17 days because of COVID-19 issues within the program. They’d barely practiced since their high-profile game against No. 2 Baylor was canceled on Dec. 5. And when they did practice, Few said, they looked out of rhythm and fatigued.
You couldn’t tell Saturday, though.
Gonzaga, basically from the opening tip until the final horn, was flying up and down the court, excelling in transition and exposing Iowa’s super-questionable defense as the type of thing that could keep the Hawkeyes from making the Final Four even with the nation’s top-ranked offense. The Zags shot 51.4% from the field, including 50.0% from 3-point range. They got a 27-point effort from Jalen Suggs, the five-star guard who is the highest-ranked recruit to ever enroll at Gonzaga. They got an 18-rebound effort from Joel Ayayi, the junior guard who is averaging 10.3 boards per game despite standing just 6-foot-5.
“I’m immensely proud of how my guys responded,” Few said. “It was a tough two weeks of not doing a whole heckuva lot. [But this performance against Iowa] shows their feel for the game, their basketball intelligence, and also just how much they like playing together.”
The Zags have three more non-league games on the schedule — two buy games against Northwestern State and Dixie State that project as total blowouts, and, in between, next Saturday’s recently made matchup with 17th-ranked Virginia at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas. If they win those, they’ll enter West Coast Conference play with a 7-0 record featuring victories over the teams currently ranked No. 3 (Iowa), No. 5 (Kansas), No. 8 (West Virginia) and No. 17 (Virginia) in the AP Top 25 poll, and they’ll have zero remaining regular-season games against anybody currently in the top 50 at KenPom.
And you know what that would mean, don’t you?
Yep, it would mean that Gonzaga would stop being talked about as just the favorite to win the national title and start being discussed as a legitimate candidate to become the first undefeated national champion since Indiana in 1976. And, at that point, it would neither be a premature nor inappropriate conversation.
The Zags are that good.
They’re excellent in nearly every way.
There’s not another team in the country that could lose its top two scorers to fouls, both of them reduced to just 25 minutes on the court, and still beat a top-five opponent by double-digits. But that’s exactly what Gonzaga did on this Saturday in December. And if Gonzaga can do that to Iowa on this Saturday in December, there’s no reason to think the Zags aren’t capable of doing something similar to somebody on the first Monday in April.