Leistikow: Hawkeyes absorb the right lessons from humbling loss to No. 1 Gonzaga

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Whether you follow NASCAR or not, bear with me for a moment. Because I’m about to compare the circumstances coming out of Saturday’s Iowa’s-Gonzaga basketball game to the Daytona 500.

In both cases, there is major anticipation for weeks … even months. The day comes with high prestige and national attention. And, once the green flag is dropped (or the ball is tipped), competitors engage at a breakneck pace.

NASCAR is an anomaly in major sports, in that its so-called “Super Bowl” is the first race of the season. But when it comes to racing for a championship, the Daytona 500 is just one race out of 36 and bears minimal long-term meaning. That's what this game was ... something we all looked forward to for a long time, but it's just an early-season blip in the basketball timeline.

That’s the way third-ranked Iowa needs to absorb Saturday’s 99-88 loss to top-ranked Gonzaga at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Gonzaga's Drew Timme (2) goes up for two points that were all too easy to come by at times against Iowa defense (from left: Joe Wieskamp, Luka Garza and Jack Nunge).

Because Iowa's season will be remembered for what happens in March, not in a non-conference game in December. The Hawkeyes' run toward a championship will be played out over the 20 Big Ten games that lie ahead, starting with Tuesday’s 8 p.m. conference opener against old nemesis Purdue. 

That’s not to ignore the fact that Saturday's game was mostly a one-sided butt-kicking. Gonzaga broke away from a 25-24 game to lead by double digits for nearly all of the final 26½ minutes.

There were lessons — you could even call them caution flags, to keep this NASCAR analogy going — that Iowa took away from a test in the national spotlight.

We knew defense would be a likely problem for Iowa this season, and it cropped up Saturday. Transition defense was lacking. The Hawkeyes rarely face teams that can match their pace, and they weren't ready for it. That was a wake-up call.

“They play fast, they push the ball,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said afterward. “They execute really well with their half-court offense. They rebound. And they have depth. … It’s a great game to play right before conference play starts.”

Joe Wieskamp circled Iowa’s poor rebounding as a learning point. Gonzaga owned a 35-19 rebounding edge at one point and wound up winning the board battle by 12.

“Obviously, they shot it well, but at the same time they were getting second-chance opportunities,” said Wieskamp, who equaled season highs of 20 points and nine rebounds in 35 good minutes.

Luka Garza, the all-American center, pointed to Iowa’s lack of hustle plays and some weird bounces as key factors.

“We need to … go after (loose balls) with all we’ve got, and I don’t think we did that tonight,” said Garza, who racked up 30 points and 10 rebounds but was held without a 3-pointer. “For us to win, we need to be the tougher team. We need to be the grittier team. We need to get those 50/50s. That’s a battle we need to make sure for the rest of the season we win.”

No good explanation for those things, much like Iowa’s shooting — which was frankly the most puzzling story Saturday. The Hawkeyes average 12 3-pointers a game with 40% accuracy but were a woeful 4-of-22 from 3 at the Pentagon (18.2%). Jordan Bohannon’s rough day (1-for-8 overall, 0-for-5 from 3) encapsulated the shooting struggles — which were compounded by uncharacteristic 14-for-26 free throw shooting (53.8%, for a team that entered shooting 74.5%). Seven different Hawkeyes missed a free throw.

Make just a few more 3s and a normal percentage of free throws, and Iowa would have been right there.

Not the Hawkeyes’ day.

“With the exception of one or two (3s) that I thought were contested, we moved it and took open shots,” McCaffery said. “Good shooters, shooting open shots.”

Meanwhile, Gonzaga connected on 13 of 26 tries from long range. Jalen Suggs made seven of them and finished with 27 points, looking every bit like the future No. 1 NBA Draft pick he's projected to be.

“To their credit, they made their 3s,” McCaffery added.

The Bulldogs (4-0) looked like a professional outfit, with scorers and relentless defenders everywhere. They’ve already beaten Kansas and West Virginia and have Virginia on deck, but Gonzaga's Mark Few said this win against Iowa was “right up there” among the biggest in his coaching career. That’s how highly he thinks of the 6-1 Hawkeyes.

“I think Iowa’s really, really good. I think they’re on their way to a really special year,” Few said. “Their chemistry and cohesiveness and character, it was like looking at mirror images out there.

"This game scared the heck out of me.”

The Hawkeyes now turn their attention to Purdue, a team that they haven’t beaten since Jan. 12, 2017 — when Garza was still in high school.

They can have the special season they desire, but it must begin with breaking the Boilermakers drought. A trip to Minnesota on Christmas Day follows. Those two games in four days matter more than this Gonzaga loss did.

If all goes well for Iowa? Maybe it gets another shot at Gonzaga again in March … or even early April at the Final Four.

“We can beat this team. We just know that we’ve got to play better and play to our potential,” Garza said. “We will do that the rest of the season. Now we’re focused on the next game: Purdue.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.