No. 3 Iowa vs. No. 1 Gonzaga: Hawkeyes know there's much to prove, but it's also early

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Connor McCaffery knew early on that Dec. 19 would be a momentous day for this Iowa basketball team.

That’s a perk of being the son of the head coach.

But McCaffery said Wednesday that all of his Hawkeye teammates got a jolt of excitement when they also found out Gonzaga was on the schedule this season in a neutral-site game at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

No. 3 Iowa (6-0) will get to measure itself against No. 1 Gonzaga (3-0) at 11 a.m. Saturday in the marquee matchup of the nonconference season. Not just for Iowa, but for the nation. Fans will be tuning in to CBS from coast to coast to watch this one.

Both teams have national championship aspirations, with two of the best offenses you’ll find in the sport. There will be star power aplenty, led by Iowa’s all-American center Luka Garza and the Bulldogs’ brilliant wing player, Corey Kispert.

“Going into a game like this, that’s obviously what we’re going to be out to prove,” McCaffery said of an early claim as the nation’s top team. “They’re trying to prove the same thing.

“If we want to be the No. 1 team, our focus and preparation needs to resemble that of the No. 1 team. It’s a different type of mindset, and I think we need to realize that early on. And I think we will. I think we have a mature team that will be able to do that.”

Gonzaga has been off for two weeks to deal with a COVID-19 outbreak, but has wins over Kansas, Auburn and West Virginia.

Iowa has been routing everyone, with its 93-80 win over North Carolina the only game that was somewhat suspenseful.

“It’s what you dream about when you were a kid, working out. It’s what I worked towards my whole career, and I’m going to continue to work to get into these types of moments for the rest of my life,” said Garza, the nation’s leading scorer at 29.2 points per game.

“We’re looking at it as an opportunity to get better, an opportunity to improve. That’s how we look at every single game.”

Cordell Pemsl (left) and Tyler Cook were two of the Hawkeyes' stars in a 2017 victory over Colorado at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, S.D. Iowa returns Saturday as the No. 3 team in the nation, facing No. 1 Gonzaga with no fans in the building. It's a high-stakes game, but it's also only December, Hawkeye players realize.

But this is no ordinary game, and both teams know it.

“I think it’s definitely going to be a little sneak peek at what a Final Four, national championship game could look like between us two. And hopefully we play up to our potential,” Iowa guard Jordan Bohannon said.

“We think that we’re the best team in the country, and we want to go out there and show it.”

It's a big game, but it's December; Hawkeyes try to keep it in perspective

Still, it’s only December. Hawkeye players spoke of the need to keep Saturday’s result in perspective, no matter how it turns out.

The winner is guaranteed nothing except a temporary boost in its national profile, and an even bigger target on its back. The loser isn’t eliminated from the national title picture by any stretch, not with three months to go.

“You look at the remainder of our schedule, 20 league games after this,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery pointed out.

“When you make a decision to play college basketball, you hope for opportunities like this on this kind of stage. And that's what we have. So I'm happy for the guys. And I think they're mature and smart enough to recognize the challenge before us.”

Bohannon, a fifth-year senior, seemed to grudgingly back up what his coach said. He has been the most outspoken Hawkeye when it comes to touting his team’s potential, saying boldly that he believes it is the nation’s best.

But that doesn’t mean perfection.

“Chances are, we’re going to lose a game this year. Whether I hate to say it or not, it’s just what’s going to happen. The way our conference is set up this year, it’s going to be a battle every night out. So we have to realize that there’s’ going to be games where we might not play well,” Bohannon said.

There hasn’t been one of those yet for the Hawkeyes, and they’re sure hoping that Saturday’s outing, with perhaps the biggest audience of the season, is not the first.

In Ken Pomeroy’s analytic measurements, Iowa has the most efficient offense in the country, followed by Gonzaga. But the Bulldogs’ defense is 15th, while the Hawkeyes are 75th. Pomeroy still sees it as a one-possession game, with Gonzaga coming out on top 87-84.

Hawkeye fans were a factor at Sanford Pentagon in 2017; not this time

The large audience for this game will be strictly on television. The Sanford Pentagon, which normally seats a cozy 3,250 fans, reversed course last week and announced that only players’ family members will be allowed in. That’s what Iowa has been facing all season at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

But it’s not what the Hawkeyes experienced three years ago on their first trip to the Sioux Falls arena, when they had the crowd on their side in a win over Colorado.

From 2017:Maishe Dailey's best game is just what Iowa basketball needs to hold off Colorado

“We really wish we had fans there, because that would be a home game for us,” said Bohannon, who had a memorable moment in that 2017 game when a Buffaloes defender was lurking behind him about to steal the basketball. The partisan crowd shouted a warning in unison and Bohannon glanced backward and adjusted his dribble just in time.

“It’s really like a high school gym and bringing me back to my high school days (at Linn-Mar). I remember how intense that atmosphere was.”

Connor McCaffery also played in that game, as a freshman. He said he’ll miss having an arena full of Hawkeye fans to help fire up his team. But he said the Hawkeyes have missed that all year.

“They just bring a completely different environment to the game, the intensity, the emotion. Everything that Iowa fans bring to an atmosphere is just something we all miss,” he said.

Garza was also a freshman starter in that win over Colorado. He praised the court and the environment. But he’s not focused on the lack of fans this time.

“It would be the same for me if we were playing outside in a park,” Garza said.

In other words: Bring on the game.

One more note for Hawkeye fans who have been anticipating this game for weeks: Tipoff is actually set for 11:06 a.m. Pace yourselves.

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.