By John Bohnenkamp
Iowa plays top-ranked Gonzaga on Saturday, which is cool, the Hawkeyes said.
Then three days later, the No. 3 Hawkeyes play Purdue at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in the Big Ten opener.
So, regardless of what happens against the Bulldogs in Sioux Falls, S.D., there is still a lot left for Iowa, and there isn’t much time to think about it.
“We’re looking at it as an opportunity to get better, an opportunity to improve,” Iowa center Luka Garza said. “And that’s how we look at every single game. We treat every game on the schedule the same way.”
Still, this one has a different feel for the Hawkeyes, who have opened the season 6-0 and have a chance to be at the top of the national polls with a win on Saturday.
Iowa has wins over a ranked North Carolina team and Iowa State at home, and there will be plenty of opportunities for signature wins during Big Ten play. This, though, could be a measuring stick.
“At the end of the day, we think we’re the best team in the country and we’re going to go out there and show it,” guard Jordan Bohannon said. “I think we’ve already been able to show what kind of team we are and what we can do this year. It’s another opportunity, I guess you could say, to build our resumé for the rest of the year.”
“Any time you have an opportunity to play a program like that is terrific,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “You look at the remainder of our schedule, 20 league games after this, but we took care of business in the first six. 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.”
Gonzaga (5-0) has wins over Kansas and West Virginia, but hasn’t played its last five games because of COVID-19 issues within the program.
The Hawkeyes have had an uninterrupted schedule so far.
Asked if his team has gotten into a normal early-season rhythm, McCaffery said, “I think as normal as it can be. It’s still not normal. The buildings are empty. And we haven’t played a road game yet or neutral game yet. So I do think the veteran nature of our team has enabled us to be mature enough in what we do off the floor and stay connected and stay together in practice and on the floor because we all want to play. Those kids want to play.
“They want opportunities to play North Carolina, Iowa State, Gonzaga. They want those opportunities. And I always say that’s what they sign up for when they come here.”
The Hawkeyes have a deep, mature rotation, and that could be important.
“If we want to be the No. 1 team, our focus and preparation needs to resemble that of the No. 1 team,” said guard Connor McCaffery. “It’s not like we can go into it and ‘Oh, we’re just going to play well, and throw the ball to Luka.’ If we’re going to be the No. 1 team, it’s a different mindset, and we need to realize that early on. And I think we will. I think we have a mature team that will be able to do that.”
“I think it’s going to be a little sneak peek of what a Final Four national championship game could look like between us two,” Bohannon said. “Hopefully we play up to our potential.”
It’s still a long way to March, though, and the Hawkeyes know it.
Lose to Gonzaga, and there are more games to be played. Win, and you’re at the top of the polls, with more games to be played.
“It’s not a make-or-break game, and that’s kind of the way you have to look at it,” Bohannon said. ” Chances are, we’re going to lose a game this year. Whether I hate to say it or not, it’s going to happen. It’s just the way our conference is set up this year — it’s going to be a battle every night. We have to realize there are games where we’re not going to play well.”
Photo: Luka Garza celebrates after a 3-pointer in Sunday’s win over Northern Illinois. (Stephen Mally/hawkeyesports.com)