Iowa Men's Basketball

Saturday's date with Gonzaga is Iowa men's basketball's ultimate December game

Mark Few says "monumental challenge" would be understatement for his Zags

Iowa guard Joe Wieskamp grabs a rebound during an NCAA college basketball game against Northern Illinois, Sunday, Dec. 1
Iowa guard Joe Wieskamp grabs a rebound during an NCAA college basketball game against Northern Illinois, Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020, in Iowa City, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Not long before Super Bowl VI in 1972, Dallas Cowboys running back Duane Thomas was asked what it was like to play in the ultimate game.

“If it’s the ultimate game,” Thomas replied, “how come they’re playing it again next year?”

Gonzaga-Iowa is a big men’s college basketball game Saturday (11 a.m., CBS) at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, S.D. Only one previous contest involving the Hawkeyes ever featured both teams ranked in the Top 3, and that was over 33 years ago.

But No. 3 Iowa plays again Tuesday night, at home against Purdue. Unlike Saturday’s game with the No. 1 Zags (3-0), the Purdue game counts in the Big Ten standings.

And yet, you, me, the gatepost and the Hawkeyes know which game carries a lot more prestige. If Iowa beats Gonzaga, it might hop over both the Zags and No. 2 Baylor onto the top of the new Top 25 when it is released Monday.

Playing in a game like this, Iowa’s Luka Garza said this week, “means the world.”

“It’s what you dream about as a kid working out,” he said, “and it’s what I’ve worked toward my whole career and what I’m going to continue to work to get in these moments for the rest of my life.”

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“Any time you have an opportunity to play a program like that is terrific,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said.

“You have an opportunity on a national stage to play the No. 1-ranked team. A team that has pretty much been up there last decade says a lot about who they have, their coach, Mark Few, their coaching staff.

“When you make a decision to play college basketball, you hope for opportunities like this on this kind of stage. And that’s what we have. So I’m happy for the guys. And I think they’re mature and smart enough to recognize the challenge before us.”

Ask Few, and he’ll tell you his team is the one with the bigger challenge.

Because of COVID-19 issues within Few’s program, Gonzaga had to cancel five games, starting with a scheduled clash with Baylor in Indianapolis on Dec. 5 in what would have been a No. 1-vs.-No. 2 contest.

The Zags paused basketball activities during that time. They didn’t resume having a practice of any kind until Wednesday.

“It has not helped us in any way, shape or form,” Few said Thursday. “This is probably, in the 20 years I’ve been coaching, the biggest challenge I’ve faced as a head coach. Today will be the first time we’ve all been back together on the practice floor since the day before the Baylor game.

“Even to use the term ‘monumental challenge’ would be a disservice. There’s a conditioning factor. We’re trying to get up to speed. There’s timing and rhythm and execution issues. ... Hopefully it will come back quickly, but it’s definitely a huge concern.”

“And then there’s a factor of just game-planning for arguably the best offense in college basketball and probably the best player in college basketball.

“So there’s a lot of stuff going into this and we’re on a short clock.”

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The Hawkeyes probably aren’t too sympathetic, figuring the Zags will be able to get by on adrenaline and great talent.

Few wasn’t surrendering, mind you, adding “We’re going to give it a good run. Especially with the veteran group that we have and the fact that we were in a really good place around the first of December, I’m hoping we can get that back sooner rather than later.”

It’s a 3,250-seat arena in South Dakota, but it’s the epicenter of college basketball on Saturday. Iowa played in the Pentagon three years ago, beating Colorado 80-73 before a packed house of Hawkeye supporters.

This time, fans are off-limits so there’s no home-gym advantage, and Iowa’s opponent is about as good as it gets. Find us a more significant December game in Hawkeyes history. We’ll wait.

Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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