Brown: Road environment may play right into Iowa's hands
SEATTLE – Home-state favorite Gonzaga will have a majority of the KeyArena crowd on its side when it hosts Iowa in a round-of-32 NCAA Tournament game Sunday.
That might be a good thing for the Hawkeyes. Coach Fran McCaffery's team has won seven true road games this season. One more would punch Iowa's ticket to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1999.
"I don't think we really care where we're playing or who we're playing. We just go out and play the game," Iowa's Aaron White said. "When you watch us, I think we're a group that's really together, that really loves one another and plays for one another. I think that helps us in tough situations."
On the line Sunday is a trip to South Region host site Houston. And a meeting with UCLA and former Hawkeye coach Steve Alford. That matchup would be the most anticipated Hawkeye game in eons.
But before we get too carried away with that storyline, there's a big hurdle to clear Sunday. Gonzaga is 33-2, ranked No. 7 in the Associated Press poll and seeded second in the South.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few said the Hawkeyes are "clicking on all cylinders" after they crushed Davidson in Friday's round-of-64 game 83-52. Iowa brought its "A' game on offense, shooting 50.7 from the field, and on defense, where Davidson's 52 points was a season low and nearly 30 points under its average.
It will take a complete effort like that to get past a Gonzaga team that leads the nation in field-goal percentage at .524 and is ninth in scoring offense (79.3 points). The Bulldogs have shot 50 percent from the field or better in 24 games this season.
The Bulldogs are led by senior point guard Kevin Pangos. The West Coast Conference player of the year averages 11.7 points and is seventh nationally with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 4.2.
"He's kind of the heart and soul of their team," said Iowa point guard Mike Gesell, coming off a 15-point, six-assist, no-turnover game against Davidson.
McCaffery also showered Pangos with praise Saturday.
"He is so good at engineering victory for his team," McCaffery said. "You look at 33 wins. He's really a tremendous point guard. He scores when he has to, distributes when he has to, he plays fast, he plays slow, he can grind it, whatever his team needs him to do. I think that will be a good challenge for Mike."
Pangos is one of four Gonzaga starters averaging double figures offensively. And the Bulldogs have the size to deal with Iowa's front line that Davidson didn't. Przemek Karnowski is a 7-foot-1 center averaging 11 points and 5.8 rebounds. Forward Kyle Wiltjer, a 6-10 transfer from Kentucky, is averaging 16.9 points and 6.1 rebounds. And 6-10 freshman Domantas Sabonis averages 9.5 and 6.9 rebounds off the bench.
"They're very similar to us, to be honest, with their size," White said. "They want to get out and run, they want to score the ball."
Gonzaga has only been outrebounded five times, and has a plus-7.3 advantage on the boards for the season. Iowa's size should counter some of that advantage, and its front line looks faster and more efficient in transition as a whole.
If it is, the Hawkeyes might just run their way to Houston. If not? Houston, we have a problem.
Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.
WHAT: Iowa (22-11) vs. Gonzaga (33-2), NCAA Tournament
TIME/TV: 6:10 p.m., TBS.