What we learned: Iowa never trails, rolls past Grand Canyon in first round of NCAA Tournament

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

INDIANAPOLIS — Iowa’s NCAA Tournament opener as a No. 2 seed oddly felt like a road game at times. A small-but-raucous crowd of Grand Canyon students made more noise than the few hundred Hawkeye backers in attendance at Indiana Farmers Coliseum on Saturday evening.

The folks in purple and white, both on and off the court, were ready for an upset.

But the veteran Hawkeyes came ready to play, kept their cool and displayed some bravado in advancing to the Big Dance’s second round with a 86-74 victory.

When they had three players get two early fouls — including all-American center Luka Garza, who sat the final five minutes of the first half — they maintained a healthy lead.

That was a contrast from a Feb. 7 trip to this state. The Hawkeyes had four players, including Garza, get two first-half fouls in that game at Indiana’s Assembly Hall. The Hawkeyes’ squandered a 13-point lead in that one and ultimately lost to the Hoosiers. This time, Iowa was able to fend off the Western Athletic Conference champions.

Luka Garza was his all-American self, despite going against 7-footer Asbjorn Midtgaard, in the Hawkeyes' first-round NCAA Tournament win.

Behind a rejuvenated Joe Wieskamp and excellent bench play, Iowa carried a 42-31 lead into halftime.

And to open the second half, Bohannon delivered a pair of 3-pointers and was more than happy to salute the Grand Canyon faithful both times — first with a bow-and-arrow motion, then a hold-the-pose follow through. That sent Iowa’s lead to 56-39. And Grand Canyon just couldn't keep up with one of the nation's most efficient offenses, which for the game averaged a robust 1.46 points per possession.

Garza was a force inside and outside, finishing with a game-high 24 points on 9-of-16 shooting. He disagreed with a reporter's assertion that this was a methodical win, citing a defense that gave up 43 second-half points.

“We were able to pull it out," Garza said, "but we’ve definitely got to do a better job on the defensive end.”

Wieskamp had 16 points for the Hawkeyes, and Jordan Bohannon and Keegan Murray each had 13 in a methodical first-round performance. Murray also had seven rebounds and four blocked shots.

As is his custom, Wieskamp started the game hot.

The 6-foot-6 junior was more than happy to step into an open 15-footer on Iowa’s first NCAA Tournament possession, and he buried it. That 2-0 lead soon became 11-2 after two 3-pointers from Garza and another from Bohannon.

Wieskamp had been bothered by a sprained right ankle at the Big Ten Conference tournament last week at Lucas Oil Stadium, but he was his nimble self again Saturday. Wieskamp pumped in 11 first-half points, including a step-back 3-pointer and two free throws for Iowa's final five points of the first half. 

From that point forward, Iowa's lead didn't creep under double digits again.

Though Wieskamp would be held without a field goal in the second half (he did make five free throws), he led the Hawkeyes with eight rebounds and five assists. He also led the Hawkeyes with 36 minutes, a testament that his ankle was feeling better. 

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said he kept the reps low in practices this week for Wieskamp and guard CJ Fredrick, who's been dealing with his own foot and ankle issues, and didn't notice either player being limited. Fredrick scored seven points in 32 minutes. 

"I thought they were terrific," McCaffery said. "I didn’t notice anything at all that slowed them down.”

Iowa had good reason(s) to be on upset alert.

The Hawkeyes watched Friday as another No. 2 seed from the Big Ten was taken down by another No. 15 seed from private, Christian school — with Oral Roberts shocking Ohio State in overtime.

And if they knew their history, it was 15 years ago last week that Iowa entered the NCAA Tournament as a high seed (No. 3) and was upset on a last-second 3-pointer by 14th-seeded Northwestern State. The Hawkeyes led that game by 17 points with 8½ minutes to play before collapsing.

The NCAA Tournament is no time to let up with a lead. Iowa scored the first two points quickly on an interior bucket from Garza to push the lead to 13. The advantage consistently ranged from 12 to 19 after that, until Grand Canyon sliced it to 10 with 33 seconds left.

“Watching all the games yesterday, we learned some lessons from other teams in terms of not being able to come out like you want to," Garza said. "We wanted to throw the first punch tonight."

The Hawkeyes improved to 4-0 under Fran McCaffery in round-of-64 games, but …

Now comes the chance for him to break that 0-3 mark in the round of 32 at Iowa. All three of those losses came to No. 2 seeds — Gonzaga in 2015, Villanova in 2016 and Tennessee in 2019 — in what were de facto road games. This time, the Hawkeyes will draw seventh-seeded Oregon at 11:10 a.m. CT Monday in a matchup televised on CBS.

The Ducks advanced in a no-contest, after COVID issues cropped up with No. 10 seed VCU.

Iowa last played (and upset) Oregon in November 2018 at the 2K Empire Classic tournament in Madison Square Garden. The Hawkeyes knocked off then-No. 16 Oregon, 77-69, in New York City on their way to a tournament championship.

"That was a big weekend for us coming off a 14-19 year," Garza said afterward. "We know the type of style of play they have. We're excited to start watching some film and get ready."