Iowa enters NCAA Tournament focused on Grand Canyon: 'No such thing as an upset in this tournament'

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

Luka Garza knows that, when it comes to the NCAA Tournament, there are people who chatter and players who matter.

He also knows that he’s the latter.

So Iowa’s all-American center wasn’t taking the bait Sunday when asked how he felt about the bracket analysts who had already declared that Gonzaga has the clearest path to the Final Four among this year’s No. 1 seeds. Garza’s Hawkeyes are the 2 seed in that region, apparently given little chance of knocking off the undefeated Bulldogs if it comes to that.

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“That’s obviously something that’s going to motivate me,” Garza said, then quickly shifted gears away from the “disrespect” angle. “I think that when you look at the bracket, there’s no easy way to the Final Four. I think we have a really competitive region. I think we have a lot of teams that can beat anybody.

“It’s all about Grand Canyon right now, making sure that we beat them to stay alive.”

Iowa (21-8) was placed in the West Region, which is apparently why it was matched up with an opening-round opponent located in Arizona even though all games are being contested in Indiana in this unique version of March Madness. Iowa’s second-round opponent would be Oregon, if the seedings hold. Gonzaga is in Spokane, Washington.

Whatever.

The Hawkeyes say they will spend this week focused squarely on Grand Canyon, which is making its NCAA Tournament debut after being a Division I program for only eight years. The Antelopes (17-6) are a 15 seed, the lone representative of the Western Athletic Conference. Their star is 7-foot senior Asbjorn Midtgaard. He’s from Denmark, and arrived in Phoenix after transferring from Wichita State. He averages 14 points and 10 rebounds per game.

More:NCAA Brackets: Iowa draws Grand Canyon, Drake scores NCAA bid vs. Wichita State

Iowa all-American center Luka Garza said he's motivated by those who are discounting his team's chances of reaching the Final Four. But Garza said his sole focus this week is on Saturday's first-round NCAA opponent: Grand Canyon, which has a 7-foot star center of its own.

An hour after the pairings were revealed, Garza was already planning on getting better acquainted with his new rival.

“It looks like he’s a really efficient guy and a good scorer. I’m looking forward to diving in to who he is as a player,” said Garza, a front-runner to be named national player of the year after averaging 23.7 points and 8.8 rebounds.

Joe Wieskamp, a junior wing player who is Iowa’s second-leading scorer at 14.7 points per game, also said Sunday he’s not looking too far ahead. The Hawkeyes face Grand Canyon at 5:25 p.m. Saturday in Indianapolis. The game will be televised on TBS. The winner advances to tangle with either 7 seed Oregon or 10 seed VCU.

Like Garza, Wieskamp can draw on one previous appearance in March Madness, in 2019. The Hawkeyes were a 10 seed then, toppling Cincinnati in the opener before falling in overtime against 2 seed Tennessee.

A look back:Iowa stages furious rally but falls 83-77 in overtime to Tennessee

“We feel like we put ourselves in a good position to make a good run, win it all,” Wieskamp said of Iowa’s initial 29 games this season, which saw them ranked in the nation’s top 15 all along.

Garza said the Hawkeyes have been driven by their second-round ouster in 2019 for the past two years. The goal was to enter the tournament in a much better position than a 10 seed. They likely would have been a 6 or 7 seed last year, with a 21-11 record, but the tournament was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery, however, quickly doused any notion that seeding matters in March. Only winning does, he said.

McCaffery is in his 11th season with the Hawkeyes. The 2 seed matches the best in program history (also accomplished in 1987).

Whatever.

The season starts anew now. McCaffery knows this well.

He coached Lehigh and North Carolina-Greensboro to the NCAA Tournament, each time losing in the opener as a 16 seed. At Siena, he twice won in the first round, once as a 13 seed and once as a 9.

This is his fifth appearance with Iowa, still seeking his first Sweet 16 berth. That requires two victories. He wants his team concentrating solely on getting that first one for now.

McCaffery knows Grand Canyon, coached by 1998 NCAA Tournament hero Bryce Drew, is dangerous.

“Every team that I’ve taken to this NCAA tourney is a really, really good basketball team with terrific players. And that’s the message to our guys. They’re very well aware of who’s in our league and who the great players are. They’re not as aware of some other conferences. What they have to do is be respectful of any team that makes this tournament won their way here. This isn’t a lottery. You’ve got to earn it. And you’re going to face an incredibly motivated, really talented, very well-coached basketball team,” McCaffery said, drawing on his experience as an underdog to warn his Hawkeyes away from complacency.

“Any short of our best effort, and you have a hard time winning. And you’ve seen that repeatedly. I firmly believe that there’s no such thing as an upset in this tournament. You’ve got to bring it. You’ve got to prepare and compete and play our very best in order to advance. And that’s what we’re going to do.”

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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.