Long overdue for Iowa to make run in NCAA Tournament
If not now with Luka Garza, then when will it ever happen?
By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – This is it, the final chapter in Luka Garza’s incredible story as a Hawkeye.
His next loss would be his last as an Iowa basketball player, so the only way to keep Garza’s story going is for Iowa to keep winning in the NCAA Tournament, which starts on Saturday against No. 15 seed Grand Canyon in a first-round game in Indianapolis.
If Iowa fans have learned anything over the past three or four decades about the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, it’s that surviving and advancing isn’t easy.
Garza was about three months old when Iowa last advanced to the Sweet 16 in 1999, while 61-year old Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery was a third-year sophomore point guard for the University of Pennsylvania the last time Iowa advanced to the Final Four in 1980.
Both streaks have festered for far too long, and it’s beyond time to do something about it as former Hawkeye Jess Settles pointed on Friday as a guest on the Hawk Fanatic/KCJJ radio show and podcast.
Settles, who works as a studio and color analyst for the Big Ten Network, said he’s tired of being asked, as a member of the last Iowa team to make the Sweet 16, when it’ll happen again.
“It needs to happen now,” Settles said. “This team is built to do it.”
This century is nearly a quarter over, and yet, Iowa still hasn’t advanced past the second round of the NCAA Tournament in this century.
Last year’s team didn’t have a chance to make a run in the 2020 NCAA Tournament because the event was canceled due to the outbreak of the coronavirus.
Garza is Iowa’s all-time leading scorer and the most decorated player in program history from an individual standpoint. And should he lead Iowa, which has won eight of its last 10 games, on a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, it would be hard not to rank Garza as the greatest player in program history, even ahead of the great Ronnie Lester.
A deep run for Iowa would have to be at least making the Sweet 16.
“I came back to play with this team, these guys, and I came back to play in this tournament,” Garza said. “That’s what I’ve been locked into for a while now. Obviously, not having this tournament last year has added to the motivation since that moment.”
“I think it’s very exciting to be here. I’m just trying to be in the present moment and not worry about anything else but just right now and then focusing on Grand Canyon, taking it one game at a time. I think we have a chance to do something special if we play like we’re capable of.”
It’s hard to think of a time since 1999 when the circumstances seemed this favorable for Iowa to make a run in the tournament.
The only other season that comes to mind is 2005-06 when a veteran Iowa squad was seeded third after having won the Big Ten Tournament.
But in case you have forgotten, Iowa was upset by Northwestern State 64-63 in the first round of the 2006 NCAA Tournament.
And sadly, that’s what most fans probably remember about the 2005-06 season because the NCAA Tournament has that kind of power and influence.
As for Grand Canyon, it won the Western Athletic Conference Tournament with double digits wins over Seattle (81-47) and New Mexico State (74-56). The Antelopes starting lineup includes four seniors and one sophomore.
Asbjorn Midtgaard, a 7-foot center from Denmark, leads Grand Canyon in scoring and rebounding with per-game averages of 14.0 and 9.9, respectively. He also ranks first in the country in field goal percentage, making 70 percent of his attempts.
Jovan Blacksher Jr., ranks 33rd in the country in assists per game (5.3).
The Antelopes (17-6) rank second in the country in field goal percentage defense (.376); fifth in rebound margin (+9.8); eighth in defensive rebounds (29.26); ninth in scoring defense (61.1); 12th in 3-point field goal percentage defense (.288); and 25th in assists per game (16.1.
Grand Canyon is coached by Bryce Drew and will be making its first NCAA Tournament appearance. Prior to Grand Canyon, Drew was the head coach at his alma mater, Valparaiso, for five seasons (2012-16) and Vanderbilt for three years (2017-20).
The winner of the Iowa-Grand Canyon matchup will play the winner between Oregon and Virginia Commonwealth in the second round on Monday.
Iowa is a double-digit favorite against Grand Canyon and will almost certainly be favored in the second round should the Hawkeyes advance.
And while no bracket is easy, Iowa’s path to the Sweet 16 looks manageable.
Iowa has to lead the way arguably the most dominating offensive player in college basketball in the 6-foot-11 Garza, one of the top 3-point shooters in Big Ten history in fifth-year senior point guard Jordan Bohannon, and one of the Big Ten’s top players in junior small forward Joe Wieskamp.
Iowa also has played much better on defense after losing four of five games in late January and early February.
So if Iowa doesn’t make a run in the tournament this season, considering the circumstances, you might start to wonder if it’ll ever happen again.
Much goes into surviving and advancing in the NCAA Tournament, not the least of which is experience.
The loss of 6-11 forward Jack Nunge to a knee injury is significant, but Iowa has had time to adjust to his absence.
Part of that adjustment has been a bigger role for 6-8 freshman Keegan Murray, whose play on both ends of the floor has been critical down the stretch.
Iowa has plenty of offensive firepower to keep this story going for a while longer. A lot will depend on how Iowa performs on defense, and lately, the Hawkeyes have been solid on defense.
The hope is that Garza and his cohorts have saved the best for last, because if so, as deep run seems well within reach.
Iowa vs. Grand Canyon
What: NCAA Tournament first-round game
When: Saturday, 5:25 p.m.
Where: Indiana Farmers Coliseum, Indianapolis
Radio: Iowa Radio Network
Series: Saturday will be the first ever meeting between Iowa and Grand Canyon.