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ZAGS TRACKER: Back, with another big-time opponent waiting

| December 17, 2020 1:20 AM

Back in action.

And what a way to do it, trekking over to Sioux Falls, S.D., for a Saturday bout with No. 3 Iowa – a team with a legitimate chance to win the national championship.

You know, that title the Zags covet so desperately.

Gonzaga didn’t get a chance to play No. 2 Baylor, as COVID issues forced the Dec. 5 showdown to be called off.

But here comes another game against a potential Final Four team — a gang featuring the almost-cinch national player of the year in center Luka Garza.

The 6-11, 265-pound Garza is simply a monster, averaging just a tick under 30 points per game with 9 rebounds alongside his buckets — and 2.2 blocks per game on top of it.

THAT’S IN just 25 minutes per game, by the way, since the Hawkeyes’ 6-0 record has included just one competitive opponent – so Garza has done a lot of resting.

Iowa, which has played all six games on its home court, beat North Carolina 93-80, with the Tar Heels’ huge front court players taking turns on Garza – holding him to 16 points on 20 shots.

The bad news?

Iowa’s guards are deadly, and with all the collapsing on Garza, they hit 17 3-pointers to keep the Heels are arm’s length down the stretch.

If Zags fans are having a flashback here, you can’t blame them.

Near the finish of last year’s 31-2 season, the Zags really hit a wall against BYU in Provo.

The Cougars’ formula was simple…

Get the ball inside to bulky, gifted Yoeli Childs and let him overpower Filip Petrusev down low.

Childs worked over the Zags for 28 points and 10 boards, and that inside game set up sharpshooting guards Jake Toolson, TJ Haws and Zac Seljaas, allowing the three of them to chuck in a combined 45 points of their own.

THAT SOFT spot in the middle was the Zags’ weakness a year ago, and the only strategy available seemed to be trying to let Petrusev’s offense outweigh issues at the other end.

Now that the smooth but vulnerable Serb has departed to play pro ball, the Zags will be trying to get rim protection from a whole squadron of defenders.

Obviously, center Drew Timme is the main man – there have been hoops pundits this week suggesting that if he outplays Garza, Timme could become the leader as the nation’s best player – but the sophomore from Texas will get plenty of help.

This is a game where we definitely will see Anton Watson given a major assignment.

He’s the only player, realistically, who could bother Garza (fronting on occasion, but also giving quick weak side help) and still switch out to an open perimeter player – a gift with Watson’s long wingspan and great timing.

Beyond that, I suspect we’ll watch Oumar Ballo getting significant minutes trying to beat up Garza, much as he contributed against West Virginia’s big men.

That was Carolina’s plan — guard Garza with multiple players.

The Heels just didn’t switch fast enough on Iowa’s outside shooters.

Even Pavel Zakharov might be thrown on for a few minutes of defense, but the Zags are well aware that Garza is not just some thug in the middle.

The All-American can shoot with either hand, boasts a variety of post moves, and even has shown he can step out to score from 15 to 20 feet and beyond.

ONE THING that perhaps has gone unnoticed about the Zags these past several years is that they tend to play near their best when Mark Few has time to break down opponents and figure out how to play them.

Think about some of Gonzaga’s rare losses since 2017...

North Carolina in the national title game, Few basically had one day to prepare after the Final Four semifinal against South Carolina.

Texas Tech in the Elite Eight game in 2019, another instance of facing a unique type of team with a single day of preparation.

Michigan in last year’s Bahamas excursion, came the day after a thrilling and exhausting one-point victory over Oregon.

But in this instance, while the players perhaps have had too much time without competition (their last game was Dec. 2), Few has had plenty of tine to study tape of Iowa — and probably chat with his pal Roy Williams about Carolina’s experience with the Hawkeyes.

Tactically, at least, Gonzaga figures to be ready.

There WILL be a plan in place.

WHAT MAY surprise Zag partisans, however, is that despite all the talk of Gonzaga’s depth this year, Iowa will have the stronger bench on Saturday.

Not only can eight or nine Hawks really contribute, an amazing number are upper classmen who have been through Big Ten wars and won’t be glassy-eyed facing the Zags.

Any number of these guys could jump up and have a big day…

Joe Wieskamp, CJ Frederick, Jordan Bohannon, or either of coach Fran McCaffery’s sons, Connor and Frederick.

Even Garza has an excellent backup (or partner) in 6-11 Jack Nunge, who is averaging 10.8 points in just 15 minutes per game.

However…

One vulnerability may exist if the Zags can exploit it.

Against Carolina — again, Iowa’s only true test — all of the points came from Garza inside, along Bohannon, Wiseman and Frederick on the perimeter.

The three outside shooters were 17 of 30 beyond the arc, but the McCaffery brothers both failed to score, and no one else made a 3-pointer.

The outside trio and Garza accounted for 80 of Iowa’s 93 points.

It would be tough to beat a team like Gonzaga with so few players deeply involved.

FOR ALL this scouting of Iowa, things work both ways.

The Hawks must find ways to slow down a terrific Gonzaga offense.

Sure, Iowa’s averaging 100 points per game, but aside from Carolina, it’s been all cupcakes who couldn’t stop anything.

The Zags, meanwhile, have faced Kansas, Auburn and West Virginia — and found different ways (and different players) to get the job done.

The Zags have incredible versatility, with guys like Watson and, especially, Joel Ayayi.

You wouldn’t think you’d want to push the pace against a team averaging 100, but the Zags most definitely will do it – because it’s their game, most of all, but also to find out if Garza can run with Timme.

ALSO, THE Iowa 3-point shooters will not be playing Northern Illinois — and hopefully not getting tons of open looks.

Corey Kispert at 6-7, Jalen Suggs at a powerful 6-5, Andrew Nembhard at 6-5 and Ayayi at 6-5 will be leaning on them all the way.

These Zags guard/forwards are strong young men, and know how to use their leverage.

Iowa will be more physical at one position, no question, but Gonzaga has that advantage everywhere else.

Plus…

When you watch the Zags play non-conference teams, you get the sense that opponents have watched tape and told themselves to respect Gonzaga’s relentless speed up the court — but when they discover what it’s like in real life, things start going much quicker than they’d imagined.

So, bottom line…

However you cut this matchup, it figures to be an exciting, up-tempo match of two teams with sky-high goals.

Now let’s hope they get it played.

Email: scameron@cdapress.com

Steve Cameron’s “Cheap Seats” columns appear in The Press on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. “Moments, Memories and Madness,” his reminiscences from several decades as a sports journalist, runs each Sunday.

Steve also writes Zags Tracker, a commentary on Gonzaga basketball which normally is published each Tuesday.

photo

DARRON CUMMINGS/Associated Press Gonzaga's Drew Timme puts up a shot during the second half of a Dec. 2 game against West Virginia in Indianapolis. After nearly a two-week layoff due to a COVID-19 outbreak, Gonzaga is scheduled to face Iowa in Sioux Falls, S.D., on Saturday.