Luka Garza may go down as the greatest Hawkeye to ever play. He was clearly the best player in college basketball this season. If you’re an Iowa fan, you’ve known that for some time. The national media, however, missed the memo.
On Friday, the Atlanta Tipoff Club announced the winners of their annual Naismith Awards and they, like everyone else, apparently valued high-flying dunks over quality offensive performances, high-caliber competition or one of the greatest single seasons in a generation. They, like the Associated Press before them, named Dayton’s Obi Toppin the Citizen Naismith Trophy Player of the Year - not Luka Garza
Named in honor of Dr. James Naismith, the creator of the game of basketball, the Naismith is awarded to the player of the year in men’s and women’s college basketball as voted on by a national academy of leading basketball coaches, administrators and journalists. The award has been given out every year since 1969 when it was first awarded to UCLA’s Lew Alcindor, later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The list of past winners is illustrious, but doesn’t include a single Hawkeye. It’s supposed to handed out to “the most outstanding men’s and women’s basketball player who achieves tremendous on-court success.” This season it was not.
Obi Toppin was not the most outstanding player who achieved tremendous on-court success this season. He demonstrated incredible talent with flashy dunks, high-flying acrobatics and tremendous ability... against a slew of below-average opponents who rarely tested him and never matched his talent or skill in the slightest. Toppin didn’t put up the best numbers. He didn’t play the hardest competition. He wasn’t on the best or most successful team. He isn’t the best NBA prospect. He wasn’t the best athlete. By any measure, Obi Toppin wasn’t the best. Yet here we are, with Toppin as the national player of the year by both the AP and Naismith.
Garza, meanwhile, could have become Iowa’s first ever winner of the Men’s Naismith Award (Iowa women’s star Megan Gustafson won the award a season ago). It would have been fitting for a player who is likely to be remembered as the greatest Hawkeye to ever play, should he return for a senior season.
Despite the snub from the AP and Naismith, Garza has already been named a consensus 1st Team All-American, becoming the first Hawkeye since Chuck Darling in 1952 to earn consensus honors. Iowa has just 4 All-Americans in its history and Garza becomes the third to be named to the first team (joining Murray Wier in 1948 and Chuck Darling in ‘52). He was also named National Player of the Year by ESPN, Sporting News, Basketball Times, Stadium, The Athletic and Bleacher Report, as well as the District VI Player of the Year by the US Basketball Writers Association and the Pete Newell Big Man of the Year.
Garza set Iowa’s single season scoring record this season, despite having the year cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic. He finished with 740 points on the year (breaking John Johnson’s record of 699) and 305 rebounds for an average of 23.9 ppg and 9.8 rpg, making him only the third player in Big Ten history to amass 700+ points and 300+ rebounds. He became one of only two players in program history to amass 50+ blocks nad 35+ 3-pointers in a season (joining Iowa’s fourth ever All-American, Jarrod Uthoff). His 11 games with 20+ points against an AP top-25 opponent are the most by any Division I player in a season since Kemba Walker did it 14 times in 2010-2011.
Put simply, Luka Garza had a historically great year. It’s part of what is a historically great career. Through three years, Garza has amassed 1559 career points and 660 career rebounds, making him the only Hawkeye in program history to top 1550 points and 650 rebounds through a junior season. Garza needs just 557 points and 330 rebounds next season to leave as Iowa’s all-time leader in both categories. He will almost certainly do so, making him arguably the best Hawkeye to ever play.
Should he come back, Garza would also leave with more than double the career points and rebounds of Obi Toppin. It would be just another set of statistics where Garza is vastly superior to Toppin. Would another dominating year from Iowa’s star change anything for the national media? Or would it be more impactful if Iowa simply won more games, even if the schedule lightens substantially a year from now? That’s the message that’s been sent this year. That and that athleticism is factored into the equation in some completely subjective manner which has never before been asserted.
It would seem that should Garza return for a senior season, he will almost certainly be remembered as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, Hawkeye to ever play. But that may not be good enough to be the best in the country. Even if the numbers say so, the schedule says so and the analytics say so. That is, unless Iowa can live up to the expectations being set for them. If the Hawkeyes can manage to win 25+ games next year, regardless of competition, and Garza can put up some highlight reel fodder above the rim, his statistics won’t matter. They shouldn’t matter. They didn’t matter this year.
Of course, none of that is true. The statistics will matter next year if Garza falters. The schedule will matter if Iowa plays a soft one. The flashy dunks will matter if Garza doesn’t have them. The NBA potential will matter if Garza’s isn’t buzzing. That’s the way this works. And it’s not changing any time soon.
Iowa is not a media darling. We don’t have a historically great program or a massive National fanbase. We don’t drive revenue for big time TV and we don’t pump out a bunch of journalists. On the flip side, we aren’t so small to be a quaint, single-season Cinderella story. Nobody is picking up their bracket and randomly rooting for Iowa to make a run. If the Hawkeyes do well, someone else the national media has an interest in is doing less well. And thus, Luka Garza doesn’t win the Player of the Year award. Not this year. Not next year. The hardest working kid you’ll find with the best numbers you’ll see doesn’t get rewarded.
And he’s just fine with that. No, really. That’s going to fuel him through another summer of insane workouts. He’s going to be working twice as hard as Obi Toppin to put up twice the numbers, literally. He’s going to win more games and at the end of the day, he’s going to get his shot to prove it at the next level. Whether he’ll make it remains to be seen. I certainly wouldn’t bet against him. But one thing is for certain: Luka Garza was college basketball’s player of the year in 2019-2020.