We’re well past the point from a sports perspective where the inconveniences of 2020 are shocking us. Teams and their fans must do their best to navigate their way through conditions that still include the presence of COVID-19.
While we wait for vaccines to bury the pandemic that took away the 2019-20 NCAA basketball postseason, there are still moments that shine, however.
Saturday, No. 1 Gonzaga (3-0) takes on No. 3 Iowa (6-0) in men’s basketball at the Sanford Pentagon in a non-conference contest that provides this sport an early-season centerpiece in front of a national CBS audience.
This 3,200-seat arena has not been witness to a matchup quite like this before, but it has seen its share of quality college basketball recently. The Pentagon will have hosted 22 NCAA Division I basketball games in less than a month by the time this contest ends.
All of this has been done under COVID-19 precautions that were in part created by Sanford Health. Chief physician Dr. Jeremy Cauwels, for instance, is a member of an NCAA medical advisory committee that devised the college basketball protocols. In addition, several of the Sanford Sports Complex’s certified athletic trainers have been upskilled to serve as testing administrators.
While it’s unfortunate the presence of the pandemic has made it necessary to prohibit spectators, it remains a contest that will include some of college basketball’s most talented players.
Garza knows the terrain
It will be the second game for Iowa at the Pentagon. The first was a 70-63 win over Colorado in 2017 that included a sold-out arena made up predominately of Hawkeye fans.
That contest also included a core group of players who remain essential contributors.
“I loved playing there my freshman year,” said Hawkeye senior Luka Garza, a popular pick for national player of the year last season. “It was a really nice environment. Obviously, the fans helped but the court itself is really, really nice…I’m definitely looking forward to playing there again.”
Garza is a 6-foot-11, 260-pound senior who scored 20 or more points in his last 16 games of his junior season. His status as one of the Hawkeyes’ all-time greats was secure a year ago. Then he came back.
He’s faced a variety of defensive tactics over the last two years while emerging as a Big 10 warrior and nearly unstoppable scorer. These strategies share one thing in common: They usually don’t work.
“He’s seen it all,” said Iowa head coach Fran McCaffrey. “They crowd him, they beat him up, they front him, they double him, they double him in various locations – on the catch, on the bounce, they come late, they come early – nothing fazes him.”
No. 1, with good reason
Can the No. 1 team knock Garza off his game? The Bulldogs have their own supply of elite players. Drew Timme, a 6-10 sophomore, leads Gonzaga at 23.3 points a game. Corey Kispert, a 6-7 senior, is averaging 22.3.
Of particular interest will be the play of freshman Jalen Suggs. The Minnesota native picked Gonzaga a little more than a year ago over several other elite suitors, including the NBA.
After three games, the 6-4, 205-pound guard is averaging 13.3 points.
“It’s a complete skill-set,” McCaffrey said of Suggs. “He can penetrate, get in the lane, find his teammates, he can play fast, he can play slow. He defends, he rebounds, he can shoot it. He’s really, really special at delivering the ball at the absolute perfect time. That’s a gift.”
It will be the first time at the Pentagon for Gonzaga, which has not played since Dec. 2, defeating No. 11/15 West Virginia 87-82.
“In the 20 years I’ve been coaching, this is the biggest challenge,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few. “(Thursday) is the first time we’ve all been back together on the practice floor since the day before the Baylor game. (Scheduled for Dec. 5 but postponed). Even to use the term ‘monumental challenge’ would be doing it a disservice.”
The Baylor game that was not played would have been a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup. The Bulldogs, then, have the next best thing waiting for them in Sioux Falls. The only other time Iowa has have been involved in a game involving No. 1 and No. 3 was 1987 when the then top-ranked Hawkeyes posted a 101-88 win over No. 3 Indiana.
Safe and solid venue
“Playing like this – a Saturday game on CBS – is going to be a blast,” said junior guard Connor McCaffrey, Fran’s son. “It’s going to be highly competitive. They’re obviously a very good team. We’ll do a lot of scouting going into this game, but even just playing the game is something everyone had looked forward to. Now that it’s here we’re all going to be locked in. This is going to be fun.”
Connor McCaffrey was also on the team for the 2017 visit to the Pentagon. It was enough of a success that his father decided the Hawkeyes needed a return trip.
“It’s a great arena where we deal with very professional people,” Fran McCaffrey said. “When we’re looking at scheduling it’s ‘Hey we’re going to play a game in Sioux Falls and deal with (Pentagon events manager) Paul Seville.’ He’s a straight –up guy. They’re really good folks up there.”
Gonzaga’s women’s team was at the Pentagon for the Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic Nov. 28-30 but this will be the first visit to Sioux Falls for the men’s team.
“I’ve heard nothing but great things,” Few said. “Not only about the venue but the way the games and tournaments have been run, especially when it’s tied right in there with Sanford and health. It will be incredibly safe. They’ll be on all the protocols. I know it’s a really, really neat venue.”
- South Carolina wins Women’s Bad Boy Mowers Classic
- Fans will not be allowed at Iowa-Gonzaga matchup at Pentagon