No. 1 Gonzaga playing No. 3 Iowa at the Sanford Pentagon on Saturday presented a national television audience with an extremely solid entertainment package.
Luka Garza, Iowa’s physical and relentless 6-10, 260-pound scoring machine – and also the odds-on-pick to be the national college player of the year – was going to lead the No. 3 Hawkeyes against No. 1 Gonzaga, the perennial national power from the Northwest that may have its best team ever.
Gonzaga’s 99-88 win over the Hawkeyes featured a lot to feel good about going forward for the season and for the Sanford Pentagon, which has now been host to 22 NCAA Division I games over the last month, all of which observed NCAA COVID-19 guidelines.
Ultimately, it was a basketball-first afternoon. Despite the presence of CBS, and despite the lack of a presence of general-admission spectators – teams were allotted seats for family members of players – it was foremost an early-season opportunity for people to get excited about the sport.
Suggs a show-stopper
Jalen Suggs, a 6-4 prize Gonzaga recruit and Minnesota native who was playing high school basketball in the Twin Cities a year ago, scored 18 first-half points and finished with 27.
Because Gonzaga had a long COVID-19 induced layoff, the Bulldogs had played just three times coming into this contest. Not many casual basketball fans had the opportunity to catch Suggs’ act up to this point, so in a sense those 27 points represented an introduction on a grander scale.
For Suggs, the Sanford Pentagon made a good first impression. And then it got better.
“At the shoot-around I was telling everyone it was a shooters’ gym,” he said. “It feels really good in here. I just came out today confident. The guys kept confidence in me throughout the game. And the shots went in. It’s always good when the shots go in.”
He had attempted just six 3-pointers over his first three games as a Bulldog, but put together a 7-for-10 effort against the Hawkeyes. This was in addition to the other things he was accomplishing.
“This game, for me particularly, was a really good learning experience,” said Suggs, who had the CBS studio hosts chuckling during a postgame interview. “I talked with Coach and we talked a lot about just slowing down a little bit. Let the game come to me. At times I try to force too much and I have some trouble. So it’s about trying to stay calm and staying confident. Do the simple things that have the biggest impact.”
It was Gonzaga’s first visit to the Pentagon, though the women’s team from the school participated in the Bad Boy Mower Crossover Classic late last month. It was also the first time the Bulldogs have played since Dec. 2. Following COVID-19 protocol in the meantime meant limited practices, in addition to not being able to play actual games.
A special season on the way
The entire basketball world has been dealing with the ramifications of the pandemic since postseasons began disappearing last March. In comparison then, sending your under-prepared No. 1 team to Sioux Falls wasn’t a huge wrinkle during the course of what promises to be a special season for the Bulldogs.
“My guys don’t care – they’re ballers,” said Gonzaga head coach Mark Few. “They want to play in games like this. They were looking forward to it. The biggest concern for all of us was just how long we were off.”
That’s not to say they were unfamiliar with the Pentagon. It has become an increasingly popular venue for nationally prominent programs. The word gets out.
“Most of them have heard of the Pentagon,” Few continued. “It’s well-known out there. They’ve seen it on television. Maybe some of them have played some AAU here back in the day. They were fine with it. We were looking forward to the challenge. Any time you can get in a No. 1 vs. No. 3 game, you have a memory for a lifetime.”
The Hawkeyes gave up 13 consecutive points over a span of four minutes midway through the first half and never completely recovered. They got a strong game from Joe Wieskamp, a 6-6 junior who scored 20 points, including 15 in the second half. They also got 30 points and 10 rebounds from Garza.
Great test for Iowa
For just about anyone else in college basketball this year, facing a highly ranked and turning in a double-double would be considered a terrific example of rising to the occasion. For Garza, though, it was just another Saturday afternoon playing against a good team.
“In the first half I got a feel for what I was going to see for the rest of the game,” said Garza, who hit 13-of-18 from the field. “Our team did a really good job of moving the ball around, especially in the second half. I was able to free-up a little more.”
The Hawkeyes’ attempt at a mild upset needed better numbers from the perimeter (4-22 on 3s) and at the line, where they hit just 14-of-26.
“You’re playing a team that is really talented,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffrey said. “They have a great coach and a team that has an expectation of winning. They’re not a mistake team. We probably forced more turnovers than usual, more than they wanted to commit. This team challenges you in a lot of ways. They play fast and they push the ball.”
McCaffrey was not done talking about Gonzaga’s attributes. It’s a long list. But it’s a long season, too, and it’s just beginning.
“We made some mistakes, we did some good things,” he said. “You have to try to say ‘Where can we do better collectively? Where can we get better individually?’”
- It’s No. 1 vs. No. 3 at the Sanford Pentagon on Saturday
- COVID-19 testing top priority for Crossover Classic