By Patrick Vint on December 19, 2020 at 8:00 am
Mark Few, not really into the mask thing
© Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports


TIME 11:00 am CT
WHERE Samford Pentagon
Sioux Falls, S.D.
TV CBS (!!!!)
RADIO Learfield Affiliates
LINE Gonzaga -4
KENPOM Gonzaga -3
6-0 RECORD 3-0
0-0 CONF. 0-0
118.9 (1st) OFF. EFF. 117.9 (2nd)
94.5 (75th) DEF. EFF. 88.6 (14th)
14.4 POSS. 14.4
59.4 (8th) eFG% 59.3 (9th)

Six games, all prelude to this: Iowa leaves the friendly confines of Carver Hawkeye Arena for the first time and ventures north to take on the No. 1 team in the nation, the Gonzaga Bulldogs.  Tip is an hour before the Big Ten Championship Game, and should be far better viewing; it's also the rare Iowa game on CBS, the true sign of a big-deal matchup to fans of a certain age (I happen to be that age).  Tom McCarthy and Clark Kellogg are on the call.

The Zags are playing a murderer's row non-conference schedule this year to make up for an even-more-down-than-usual West Coast Conference.  They beat Kansas (Kenpom No. 8) by 12 in their opener, dispatched Auburn (Kenpom No. 75) the following night, then handed West Virginia (Kenpom No. 5) a loss on December 2.  Gonzaga was preparing to play Baylor (Kenpom No. 2) when Covid cancelled the game and shut down team activities for more than a week, and so the Bulldogs haven't played in 17 days.

You see that Tale of the Tape above? That's sick. This game is gross. On adjusted offensive efficiency, these two teams are not just the top two in the nation; there's not another team in the country above 116.5 at the moment. Their average possession length and effective field goal rates are identical. Both teams play fast, efficient basketball and shoot opponents out of the gym. As Clark would say, they're both high on spurtability. This game is going to be bonkers, if adjusted efficiencies mean anything.

The key word there, though, is "adjusted."  Because Gonzaga has played such a tough early schedule, they get a significant adjustment upward to their raw efficiency marks.  On raw offensive efficiency, Iowa sits first in the nation; Gonzaga is 17th, nearly 0.2 points per possession behind the Hawks.  While Iowa's raw defensive efficiency (91.3, 59th) is hardly world-class, Gonzaga sits 156th at 99.8.  There is no doubt that Gonzaga has played a tougher schedule than Iowa, and that some of those numbers are a result of the schedule.  But this early in the year, adjusted efficiencies can be skewed by Kenpom's perception of the opposition.

You can't fake that effective field goal rate, though.  Gonzaga is scoring at an insane clip the old-fashioned way: By shooting an utterly absurd 65.3 percent on two-point attempts, through a highly-effective big man and a slash-and-burn point guard.  The Zags don't make threes (29.1% from behind the arc), and they don't take them (27.6% of attempts are threes, 293rd nationally).  Rather, they're just big across the board.  The center is 6'10", the wings are all 6'5" and above, the point guard is 6'4".  They don't have the same volume of giants as, say, North Carolina.  They just cause matchup issues everywhere instead.

It's probably time to talk about Saturday's biggest individual matchup: Luka Garza against Drew Timme.  The 6'10" sophomore has emerged as the closest thing to Garza available anywhere in the nation.  He's leading the Bulldogs in scoring (23.3 ppg), second in rebounding (6.3 rpg), making 60 percent of his attempts from the field, drawing 6 fouls per 40 minutes, and shooting 73 percent at the free throw line on 5 attempts per game.  Garza is currently top of the Kenpom Player of the Year standings.  Timme is third.

The undercard has some sizzle, as well: Joe Wieskamp, the man who would be three-and-D, gets 6'7" forward Corey Kispert.  The Gonzaga senior also shoots 60 percent from the field, but happens to be the Zags' only serious three-point threat (45% on seven attempts per game).  Kispert also draws a ton of fouls, and is automatic at the stripe.  If Wieskamp is really going to be the athletic perimeter defender that NBA teams covet, he has to prove it against efficiency machines like Kispert.

Iowa seems to have answers for Timme and Kispert on the roster.  The same probably can't be said for Jalen Suggs, the 6'4" point guard out of Minneapolis who runs the show for Mark Few.  Suggs has already broke into the player of the year conversation as a freshman, handing out an absurd 6.3 assists per game and scoring 13.3 points per contest.  On top of all that, he's a menace on defense and a matchup issue for just about everyone.  Fran is going to need everything in his power to scheme Suggs out of something like 20 points and 8 assists, and that might be enough for Gonzaga to win.

The rest of the starting five presents further problems.  Six-five guard Joel Ayayi actually leads the team in rebounding (7.7 rpg) and is shooting north of 70 percent on two-point attempts.  Forward Anton Watson (6'8", 225) is a problem on the glass (4.3 rpg) but doesn't score much.  Guard Andrew Nembhard (6'5", 193, 11.7 ppg/2.3 rpg/4.0 apg) gets plenty of minutes off the bench at the three perimeter positions.  Freshman Oumar Ballo (7'0", 260, 3.3/1.7) gets a few minutes a game spelling Timme.  Senior guard Aaron Cook (6'1", 180, 2.3/1.3/2.7) likewise gets a few minutes, but this is essentially a seven-man rotation at the moment.  That short bench might get a little longer soon: Four-star forward Ben Cregg, the Oregon Player of the Year, reclassified to this year, graduated early from high school, and is immediately eligible for the Zags.  He needs to pass Covid protocols before being available.  That could be enough to keep him home Saturday, but it's certainly possible Mark Few has another body to throw at Iowa.

Iowa's depth, and Garza's ability to draw fouls, might be important here.  If the Hawkeyes can limit turnovers and fast break points, rebound at their usual rate, and knock down perimeter shots to reduce pressure on a certain-to-be-double-teamed Garza, the Hawkeyes are truly Gonzaga's equal at the moment.  If this team is going to take the next step toward those lofty postseason goals, this is its first opportunity.  It's time for Iowa to take advantage of it.

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