It’s official: Luka Garza will be playing college basketball for the Iowa Hawkeyes in 2020-2021.
The presumptive national player of the year favorite, Garza has Iowa fans dreaming of hanging new banners from Carver-Hawkeye Arena and of watching the talented big man break several program records, including the career scoring record of 2,116 currently held by Roy Marble. To accomplish these goals, Garza will need to continue his streak of dominant play from last season, and arguably elevate it as he faces increased pressure from the fans and media, as well as the laser focus of opposing players and coaches who spent all offseason formulating strategies for how to contain him.
Fortunately, Garza’s career at Iowa provides every indication that he will be up to the task. An RSCI Top 100 recruit, Garza was one of the few pleasant surprises to emerge from the dismal 2017-18 season, becoming Iowa’s starting center as a true freshman and averaging 12.1 points and 6.4 rebounds per game while shooting .348% from three-point range. Garza had every excuse to suffer a sophomore slump after having a nine-pound cyst removed shortly before the start of the 2018-19 season, but still managed to increase his per-game scoring average, earn the 2K Empire Classic MVP award, go on an absolute tear through most of January, and come up huge in Iowa’s NCAA tournament win over Cincinnati.
Similarly, Garza and the Hawkeyes could have phoned in the rest of the 2019-20 season after losing Jordan Bohannon and Jack Nunge to early injury concerns. Instead, the gifted center rose to the challenge and produced one of the greatest seasons in Hawkeye basketball history, posting per-game averages of 23.9 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks over 32 minutes while also showing markedly improved defense and footwork on both ends of the floor as a result of his more athletic frame. Garza earned Big Ten Player of the Year honors, was a unanimous first-team All-American, won several national player of the year awards, broke Iowa’s single-season scoring record with 740 points, became only the third Big Ten player to produce 740+ points and 300+ rebounds in a season, and scored 20+ points in 16 straight conference games in the most difficult league in college basketball. Simply put, the man was a beast.
Few Iowa fans who watched Garza last season will be able to forget the highlights. From his 44-point outing against Michigan
to his amazing play in a comeback win over Minnesota
to him returning to Iowa’s win over #12 Texas Tech after getting stitches mid-game,
Garza established himself as the epitome of toughness, will-power, and the sheer desire to overcome whatever obstacle was in his path. Is it any wonder that Garza was undaunted by concerns about the coronavirus and fear of yet another disrupted season given what he’s accomplished over his three years in Iowa City?
Garza’s return makes the Hawkeyes an instant contender for both the Big Ten and national championships, but it also gives the skilled center an opportunity to further improve his game, a tantalizing prospect given the growth he’s made during every offseason since arriving in Iowa City. Garza showed real improvement on the defensive end of the court as junior, becoming a stout interior defender, a capable shot-blocker, and a much more competent defender of ball-screens. Garza’s innate athletic limitations will likely prevent him from becoming a true rim protector or someone fans are thrilled to see switch on to opposing point guards, but there’s no reason to expect that another off-season of hard work won’t allow Garza to further improve his footwork, lateral quickness, and instincts as a defender and enable him to take another jump on that end next season.
Garza will also have ample opportunity to improve as a passer. The return of three-point ace Jordan Bohannon and the continued development of Connor McCaffery and Joe Touissant as outside threats should allow Iowa to surround Garza with four perimeter weapons at nearly all times. Opposing coaches will be forced to choose between playing Garza one-on-one and allowing him to feast on overmatched defenders in the post or double-teaming him and risking an open three-point attempt from one of Iowa’s deep bench of long-range marksmen. If Garza can become a more adept and intuitive passer to both open three-point shooters and cutting perimeter players and make the sort of growth in this area that someone like Ethan Happ did in his later years at Wisconsin, Iowa’s offense could go from one of the nation’s best to one of the best college basketball has seen in decades. Luka may see his scoring average dip slightly next season, but that might simply be a by-product of the explosive offensive talents around him.
Yet there’s also a case that Garza could keep up his torrid scoring pace from last season. If Iowa’s perimeter players prove early on that they can embarrass teams who double Garza on the block, it could result in fewer teams sending dedicated help defenders and more one-on-one opportunities for Garza to display his full array of post moves. Seeing as Garza shot .589% on two-point attempts last season while facing constant double-teams, it’s not unrealistic to believe his shooting efficiency could see a noticeable bounce in 2020-2021. Furthermore, if Garza can rediscover the free throw accuracy he displayed as a sophomore (Luka shot .804% from the line in 2018-19, about 15% higher than in 2019-20), he could keep his scoring numbers up even if the talent around him causes his field goal attempts to go down.
Luka Garza is returning to Iowa City because he felt as though he had unfinished business in the black and gold, and because he felt it would be too difficult to watch his teammates elevate the basketball program to new heights and compete for a championship without him. Years of futility and missed opportunities have conditioned Iowa fans to avoid such lofty aspirations, but a renewed optimism abounds in light of Sunday’s decision. Garza believes both he and the team have yet to reveal their full powers on the basketball court, and that cutting down the nets at the end of the season is a real possibility. After watching Garza prove the world wrong for three years, do you really want to start doubting him now?