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No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 3 Iowa: 5 factors that may decide epic basketball matchup

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — The two best offenses in college basketball have flown to the Great Plains to put on a show Saturday.

These are future pros, athletes who can score from anywhere inside 25 feet, who will be probing for weaknesses for a full 40 minutes.

Neither Gonzaga coach Mark Few nor Iowa coach Fran McCaffery will be able to wait for timeouts to make adjustments in a game that will be as free-flowing as anything the sport has to offer. It will be up to the players on the No. 1 Bulldogs and No. 3 Hawkeyes to react possession-by-possession in order to stay a step ahead of the opposition.

That’s why CBS wanted the rights to televise this game to a national audience at 11 a.m. It’s why the Sanford Pentagon wanted to be the neutral site that is hosting the best non-conference game of the season so far, giving the Hawkeyes a $150,000 check for the privilege.

And it’s why Few and McCaffery spent their news conferences this week discussing the offensive prowess of each other’s teams.

Iowa point guard Jordan Bohannon knows transition offense may decide the outcome Saturday against Gonzaga. That means taking care of the basketball, and taking high-percentage shots, will be vital for the Hawkeyes.

“I’m hoping ours is as challenging to them as theirs is to us,” Few said of the defensive difficulties he expects from a Hawkeye team that has averaged 100.5 points per game in a 6-0 start.

Watch:How to watch Iowa Hawkeyes vs. Gonzaga Bulldogs basketball showdown on TV and livestream

Here are five things to watch in the most highly anticipated December basketball game in Hawkeye history:

1. What schemes will Gonzaga throw at Iowa all-American Luka Garza?

Iowa center Luka Garza leads the nation at 29.2 points per game. That puts the senior atop every team’s scouting report, and Few knows there is no single answer in contending with the all-American.

Garza has conquered every tactic he’s seen, including triple-teams. He is as cerebral as he is skilled, entering each game with an idea of what he’ll face, but with a rare ability to adjust quickly if he’s wrong.

More:How Iowa basketball's Luka Garza tapped into his own mind to untap his potential

Some opponents will bring a second defender at Garza as soon as he catches the ball; others will wait for his first dribble. Either way, they will vary where the defender comes from, meaning which of Garza’s teammates they choose to leave temporarily open. Some teams will surprise Garza by giving him some rare space, choosing to siphon off the array of 3-point shooters the Hawkeyes deploy.

“The first four minutes of the game, you’re going to have a good feeling of how they’re going to defend you for the rest of the game,” Garza said. “That’s a big time for me to know how I can adjust and how I can attack.”

Iowa center Luka Garza has been unstoppable this season. But that doesn't mean Gonzaga doesn't have a plan to try when the teams meet Saturday in Sioux Falls, S.D. How quickly Garza can recognize the tactics and figure out how to overcome them will be a key to this marquee matchup.

While that is ordinarily true, it might not be so against a championship-caliber team with a veteran coach like Few. It’s likely that Garza will see an ever-changing defensive scheme from Gonzaga, which starts sophomores Drew Timme (6-foot-10, 235 pounds) and Anton Watson (6-foot-8, 225 pounds) in its front court. Redshirt freshman Oumar Ballo (7-foot, 260 pounds) comes off the bench and would give Few five additional fouls to use if he chooses to lean on Garza.

“He’s shown everybody that he can post numbers in a variety of ways,” Few said of Garza, a 6-11 force inside who also has been Iowa’s best 3-point shooter at 13-for-19 (68.4%). “You’ve got to try your best and throw a bunch of different things at him. All the while, they have a potent 3-point attack that’s just as dangerous as he is.”

Few’s biggest concern is that Timme, who is averaging 23.3 points per game, will get into foul trouble trying to hamper Garza. So don’t look at that as a one-on-one matchup, as exciting as that might be. There will be wrinkles for Garza to contend with. It will be up to him to solve them on the fly.

2. How will Iowa will curtail Gonzaga's freshman phenom Jalen Suggs?

Gonzaga freshman point guard Jalen Suggs is already the premier newcomer in college basketball. The 6-4 native of Minnesota is so gifted that he could have been a first-round NBA Draft pick last year if it was still possible to jump to the league straight out of high school.

McCaffery compared Suggs to former NBA star Jason Kidd. McCaffery is not known for hyperbole.

“He's really special at delivering the ball at the absolute perfect time, which is a gift,” McCaffery said of Suggs, whose college debut was a 24-point, eight-assist masterpiece in a win over Kansas.

“If you throw it one second later, one second earlier, it's a turnover. And when those guys throw it, it's an assist. So you really have to be locked in when he has the ball.”

Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs is the best freshman in college basketball this year and a likely first-round NBA Draft pick in 2021. How will Iowa try to contain him Saturday? It will need to be a team effort.

Who will lock in on Suggs for Iowa, a team that is often questioned for its ability to defend quick guards?

That will be a subplot to watch. As with the defense on Garza, it certainly won’t be one player’s responsibility, but rather look for a combination of Hawkeyes to take turns.

“He’s going to be a hassle to guard,” Iowa senior point guard Jordan Bohannon said of Suggs. “So he’s somebody I study a lot to see what I can take away.”

CJ Fredrick, Joe Toussaint and Joe Wieskamp may also be called on to try to curtail Suggs’ impact.

3. Which team gets out in transition depends on shot selection at other end

Gonzaga and Iowa both want to push the pace, which is no secret. You don’t score 90-plus points routinely by walking the ball downcourt and milking the shot clock.

That means both teams want to generate turnovers and get into transition. Who does this better could determine the outcome.

The danger for Iowa is if, in its desire to score quickly, it starts hoisting up low-percentage shots that can lead to long rebounds and a quick trip in the other direction. In its 93-80 win against North Carolina, Iowa was extremely disciplined about that, getting 17 3-pointers from its perimeter trio of Bohannon, Fredrick and Wieskamp with only 10 misses among them.

Leistikow:One-on-one with Jordan Bohannon, who thinks NCAA is awful and Iowa hoops should be No. 1

The Bulldogs are averaging 22 fast-break points per game, but have also committed 40 turnovers. The Hawkeyes, the more veteran team, are averaging only nine turnovers per game.

“That comes down to our offense taking care of the ball and not getting them off on runs and letting them get easy buckets that way,” said Bohannon, who knows the game will be high-scoring as it is. “After that, it’s just playing a full 30 seconds on the shot clock on defense and locking in to all the personnel out there. We have to make sure that we get stops at certain spots that we need … to extend the lead at that point.”

4. Has Gonzaga's COVID-19 pause caused it to lose a step?

When it comes to taking care of the basketball, keep an eye on Gonzaga’s rustiness. The Bulldogs won three games against three high-major schools (Auburn and West Virginia were the others), but then had to take 12 days off after a couple of positive COVID-19 tests.

Few said that Thursday was the first day since Dec. 4 that his entire team had been able to gather for a practice. He expressed “monumental” concern about that, although it’s also possible he was doing what many savvy coaches do when they’re considered a favorite to win a big game: Paint yourself as the underdog instead.

Gonzaga coach Mark Few said his players were noticeably rusty when practice resumed after a 12-day hiatus due to two positive COVID-19 tests. Will the Bulldogs be in game shape when Saturday's game vs. Iowa tips off at 11 a.m.? It's a storyline to watch.

Few said that some of his Bulldogs were able to practice together Wednesday and that their passing was sloppy and they were out of shape.

“There’s a conditioning factor. We’re trying to get up to speed. There’s a timing and rhythm and execution issue if you’re involved with basketball that are obviously a big concern. And really, when you play the way we play, that’s a huge part of who we are,” Few said. “And there’s the factor of just game-planning for arguably the best offense in college basketball and probably the best player in college basketball.”

Smoke screen, or legitimate issue? Certainly, the Hawkeyes can’t afford to think they’ll be facing a ragged Gonzaga team. But Iowa hasn’t played since Sunday and McCaffery is comfortable with a nine-player rotation. This could present itself as a significant advantage.

5. Connor McCaffery's mastery of the Hawkeye game plan as an 'X' factor

Finally, there always seems to be an "X" factor in games like this, and for Iowa that may be Connor McCaffery. The fourth-year player is a power forward and a point guard and anything in between for his father’s team. He is best equipped to point the Hawkeyes in the right direction.

Connor McCaffery (right) doesn't need to score to have a positive impact for the Iowa basketball team coached by his father, Fran. It is Connor's understanding of what needs to be done at both ends of the court as a fourth-year player that may be an 'X' factor for the Hawkeyes against Gonzaga on Saturday.

Remember what McCaffery did at this time last season when Iowa visited Syracuse while down to eight healthy scholarship players? McCaffery engineered that 68-54 Hawkeye win despite scoring only five points. He helped solve the Orange’s tricky matchup zone with four assists and no turnovers. He kept the defense active and finished with five rebounds in 36 gritty minutes.

He’ll need to fill a similar role if Iowa is to upend Gonzaga. It’s possible that McCaffery, at 6-5, will be asked to guard the Bulldogs’ three biggest stars at various points of the game. In addition to Timme and Suggs, that includes 6-7 senior wing player Corey Kispert, who is averaging 22.3 points while shooting 45% from the 3-point arc.

Earlier:Connor McCaffery tunes out critics while leading his father's team

McCaffery has attempted only 17 shots all season. He’s comfortable sacrificing his offense for the greater good of the team. And he’s versatile enough to defend any position, even if he doesn’t stay in any one spot for very long.

There is no statistic that accurately reflects a player’s understanding of the game plan. But, in a contest of two top-three teams whose strengths mirror each other’s, it could be a player like McCaffery who gives one side an edge simply by being the first to recognize what is occurring, and what needs to be done.

Without having to wait for a timeout.

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