Veteran Iowa squad is built to make a run in NCAA Tournament
Experience is key to surviving and advancing, and Iowa has plenty
By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – How many of you knew that Grand Canyon University competed at the Division I level in men’s basketball?
I assume you know now because that’s Iowa’s opponent in the first round of the NCAA Tournament West Region on Saturday in Indianapolis.
Iowa, as expected, earned a No. 2 seed, while Grand Canyon is seeded 15th in the West Region.
Only eight times in the history of the NCAA Tournament has a 15-seed defeated a two-seed, the most recent being Middle Tennessee’s 90-81 victory over Michigan State in 2016.
So, yes, anything is possible.
However, two-seeds have a 132-8 record against 15-seeds, so the odds of Iowa losing to Grand Canyon as a 16-point favorite are incredibly slim.
Grand Canyon’s biggest advantage is that it only has to upset Iowa once to advance, as opposed to playing in a best-of-five, or a best-of-seven series as they do in the NBA.
Think back to 2006 when Iowa, coming off a Big Ten Tournament title and seeded third in its region, lost to No. 14 seed Northwestern State 64-63 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Auburn Hills, Mich.
Nobody saw that upset coming, except for maybe the Northwestern State players.
So you never say never.
But it’s hard to see this Iowa team, led by All-America senior center Luka Garza, fifth-year senior point guard Jordan Bohannon and junior swingman Joe Wieskamp, losing to an inferior opponent with so much on the line.
Perhaps somebody should remind the Iowa players about what happened in 2006 just to be careful.
Experience, especially in the backcourt, is usually a key to surviving and advancing in the NCAA Tournament, and Iowa has plenty of experience.
In addition to Garza, Bohannon and Wieskamp, Iowa’s starting lineup includes fourth-year junior guard Connor McCaffery and third-year sophomore guard C.J. Fredrick.
So that’s two seniors, including a fifth-year senior, two juniors, including a fourth-year junior, and a third-year sophomore in Iowa’s starting lineup.
There aren’t many teams that can match Iowa’s level of experience.
But even with all of that experience, none of the current Iowa players have won more than one NCAA Tournament game.
Garza is one of the most celebrated and decorated players in school history, while Bohannon is arguably the most statistically accomplished point guard in program history.
Wieskamp has also earned all-Big Ten recognition multiple times, including second-team accolades this season.
But between the three of them, they have just one NCAA Tournament victory.
So as strange as this might sound, Garza and his cohorts still have something to prove.
All that Garza really has left to prove is that he can lead Iowa on a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. A deep run would be at least making the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1999.
Gonzaga is the top-seed in Iowa’s region, so there could be a rematch with a trip to the Final Four on the line.
Gonzaga defeated Iowa 99-88 in the regular season in Sioux Falls, S.D.
And while a lot would have to happen, Iowa could face Drake in the Sweet 16, and wouldn’t that be fun.
Drake would have to win three games to make the Sweet 16, but we’re also talking about a team that won 25 games during the regular season.
As a graduate of Drake, and as a Des Moines native, it would be a dream come true for me if Iowa and Drake were to meet in the Sweet 16.
Yeah, I know I’m getting way ahead of myself, but it’s still fun to think about Iowa and Drake playing such a meaningful game on a big stage.
Former Iowa guard Matt Gatens is an assistant coach for Drake, while another former Iowa guard, Brady Ellingson, is Drake’s Director of Operations.
Assuming Iowa avoids the upset in the first round, it would face either Oregon or Virginia Commonwealth in the second round.
Grand Canyon is coached by former Valparaiso and Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew, and is making its first NCAA Tournament appearance in program history.
Drew, a Valparaiso alum, played six seasons in the NBA for the Houston Rockets, Chicago Bulls and New Orleans Hornets, but is probably most famous for the shot he made in the 1998 NCAA Tournament to lift No. 13 seed Valparaiso over No. 4 seed Ole Miss.
Drew might even bring up that shot as he tries to convince his players that anything is possible during March Madness.
It’s hard to see Iowa taking Grand Canyon lightly because Iowa coach Fran McCaffery has too much respect for the game, and for every opponent that he faces.
Iowa also has no business taking any opponent lightly in the NCAA Tournament, because for one, it’s the Big Dance, and two, Iowa still has a lot to prove in the NCAA Tournament under Fran McCaffery, who is in his 11th season as the Iowa head coach.
The Iowa program was in shambles when Fran McCaffery was hired in March 2010, and while success didn’t happen right away, McCaffery has made Iowa relevant again on the big stage.
Iowa didn’t have a chance to compete in the NCAA Tournament last season because it was canceled due to the outbreak of the coronavirus.
But Iowa was considered a lock to make last year’s NCAA Tournament, so this should’ve been Iowa’s third consecutive trip to the Big Dance.
The next step for Fran McCaffery, just like with Garza and Bohannon, is to lead Iowa on a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
Iowa fell short in its attempt to win the Big Ten regular-season title for the first time since 1979, and also lost to Illinois 82-71 in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament on Saturday.
But none of that will matter if Garza and his cohorts make the Sweet 16, because fair or not, Iowa’s performance in the NCAA Tournament will ultimately define this team, and this season.
Iowa’s No. 2 seed matches the highest seed in program history, and with that comes high expectations and the pressure to meet those expectations. But this is the kind of pressure that Garza embraced when he decided to return for his senior season.
This is Luka Garza’s last dance and that’s one of many reasons why Grand Canyon could be in trouble on Saturday.