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COVID-19 opened the door for Luka Garza’s return to Iowa and is now closing it

It’s been a wild 4+ months for Hawkeye basketball, let’s take a look to remember what it means ahead of Luka Garza’s decision

NCAA Basketball: Penn State at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

I am not jealous of the decision facing Luka Garza.

Despite the NCAA Board of Governors meeting last week and deciding “hey, it’s too early for us to make decisions,” they still have the August 3rd deadline in place for college basketball players to withdraw their names from the draft because it isn’t too early for them to make decision.

It is a tough choice for Garza and dozens other, as they are faced with making life-altering decisions despite having incomplete information. The most obvious outstanding question is: “what does the basketball season even look like?”

I offered some solutions to ease the burden many of these players face in a blog last week in a sort of bargaining exercise as a way to deal with the potential grief of Garza having played his last game in the black and gold. By reexamining the events which took place since the college basketball season was cancelled, it moves this into a bit of a depressing state.

3/12 & 3/13: Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments Cancelled

News funnelled into the Hawkeye contingent Iowa would not face Minnesota - or any other team - the morning after Rudy Gobert tested positive and the NBA season was suspended. Mark Emmert of HawkCentral recently caught up with Joe Toussaint. JT felt like they still had their best basketball to play:

Toussaint said he was angry when he found out in Indianapolis in March that the Hawkeye season was suddenly over. He felt his team was poised to make a strong run in both tournaments and said the practices that final week were among the best of the season.

Not only did the cancellation rob Iowa and many other teams of chasing their on court goals, it removed Garza’s opportunity to cement himself as a potential first round pick. This was something Fran touched on in availability last month in a Facebook Live session with fans, captured by David Eickholt of HawkeyeInsider:

“(If it was like any other year) he would have had an opportunity to play in the Big Ten Tournament and the NCAA Tournament,” McCaffery said. “I feel like he would have done really well. Had he had those opportunities, he may have played his way into the first round and he would have also had opportunities to meet individually with teams, have individual workouts as well as go to the combine, which was cancelled.”

Consider a best case scenario of Iowa progressing to the Big Ten Championship (~12.5% chance assuming coin flip probabilities in the preceding three games) and Sweet 16 (somewhere between a 30% and 50% chance) and that is a loss of seven of the highest profile games of Garza’s career.

In such a circumstance (and holding his 23.9 ppg average), he’d have finished out his junior campaign with over 900 points (200 points clear of second) and 1700 points on his career (top 5-6 range on Iowa’s all-time charts).

While his 2019-20 season was legendary, more games - and wins - would have further validated his dominance.

And none of this touches on his lost opportunity at going toe-to-toe with other potential draftees in workouts with NBA teams.

A return at this juncture is all but guaranteed: Luka’s personal, professional, and team goals can best be achieved by returning to school.

4/10: Luka Garza enters his name into the NBA Draft

At this juncture, the NBA is formulating their bubble plan but has adjusted the rules for workouts. The idea for Garza to return with NBA feedback has Hawkeye fans foaming at the mouth in excitement with the possibilities of what Iowa basketball looks like with an even more motivated Garza at the center of a potent Hawkeye attack.

Additionally, the United States was at the top of what looked like the peak of the COVID-19 curve.

There’s certainly reason to believe that if the US stayed on the downward trend seen throughout much of May, into June, the decision would be easy to return as some semblance of normalcy would project a college basketball season.

However, the curve started to bend upward around the time of Fran’s availability when he projected a decision “soon” and not to push against the August 3rd deadline.

Yet we know the curve has bent upward, COVID-19 cases have been seen in many college programs and the MLB’s decision to postpone the Miami Marlins’ and Philadelphia Phillies’ games as a result of an outbreak on Miami adds to the uncertainty of sports outside of a bubble.

7/27: NBA announces their Combine attendees

While the announcement of the Combine maybe happening doesn’t grant any insight, his inclusion does show teams are curious enough about his abilities to include him in the 65. It certainly doesn’t guarantee him getting drafted (Tyler Cook and Peter Jok were not drafted after going to the NBA Combine), but places him in 65 when he has barely been included in Top 100s.

Early on, Garza indicated he did not plan to go pro unless there was a guaranteed NBA spot available for him yet now, with the increased uncertainty of returning to college coupled with the increased certainty of going pro, it has turned his decision into an exercise in game theory.

Luka Game Theory

The Decision NCAA Season Cancelled NCAA Season Runs to Completion
The Decision NCAA Season Cancelled NCAA Season Runs to Completion
Luka Stays Best case scenario:
May be able to go to Europe
Worst case scenario:
Must wait until 2021 NBA draft/season
Best case scenario:
Iowa meets very high preseason expectations; Luka sets records and goes down as all-time greatest Hawkeye
Worst case scenario:
Another middling conference finish, misses Sweet 16
Luka Goes Best case scenario:
Leverages European deal for guaranteed NBA deal; did not miss opportunity
Worst case scenario:
G-League trying to catch on with NBA
Best case scenario:
Leverages European deal for guaranteed NBA deal and Iowa still makes Sweet 16
Worst case scenario:
G-League trying to catch on with NBA amid season Iowa clearly misses him

A couple notes:

So all of this is done, of course, without attributing percentages and utilities into each level of the decision to understand the right one. For instance, the heart-driven Garza might be liable to overstate the utility of returning which would make any percentage of a completed season outweigh a potentially higher likelihood of another cancelled season.

Hence, the sleepless nights plaguing Garza.

As the hours tick down to Garza’s announcement, there’s no way to simplify the decision he faces. For someone who has focused on freeing himself to “be in the moment,” the weight of the moment before him is much different than breaking down his guy in the post or running a pick and pop.

It’s one he’s never done before and will never do again.