Iowa center Luka Garza knew, when he got on the telephone the other day, that the purpose of the conversation would be to discuss his selection as Sporting News College Basketball Player of the Year for the 2020-21 season. So it was not a phone call he was averse to making. This was good news.
Within moments of saying hello, he learned it was better than he ever dreamed.
Garza also was our winner as a junior, in 2019-20. Which means he has won for the second consecutive season. The last player to be chosen as Sporting News Player of the Year in consecutive seasons was a fellow who has become universally known by his initials: M.J.
“Oh, wow,” Garza said upon having this information relayed to him.
Sporting News has presented this award uninterrupted since 1958, and it dates back as far as the 1943 season. The only men to win it in consecutive years since were Oscar Robertson (1958, 1959, 1960), Jerry Lucas (1961, 1962) Bill Bradley (1964, 1965), Bill Walton (1972, 1973, 1974) and Michael Jordan. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won it twice, in 1967 and 1969, but his reign was interrupted by Elvin Hayes’ tremendous 1968 season.
Anyone else dizzy from this discussion of basketball greats, or is it just Luka?
“Honestly, just hearing that is surreal,” Garza told Sporting News. “It’s not something that I ever imagined I could do, but I always just worked as hard as I could. I never came to college expecting things like that. I just wanted to win. I wanted to work hard and make myself into the best player I could possibly be.”
It turns out, that player is better than the other 4,500 or so in Division I men’s basketball, for the second year in a row. By leading all major-conference scorers with 24.3 points per game, by also delivering to the Hawkeyes averages of 8.4 rebounds, 1.5 blocks, 55.1 percent field goal shooting and 45.5 percent accuracy on 3-pointers, Garza stood above a strong field of candidates including Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu and Baylor guard Jared Butler.
As a high school player at the Maret School in Washington, Garza was ranked the 118th-best prospect in the recruiting class of 2017. That seemed an underestimation from the start, when he averaged 12.1 points and 6.4 rebounds as a freshman for a rebuilding Hawkeyes squad that finished 13th in the Big Ten. He was good for 13.1 points a year later but gave a hint at better things to come with 20 points in a comeback win over Cincinnati in the 2019 NCAA Tournament and 13 in an overtime second-round loss to heavily favored Tennessee.
He became a dominant player as a junior, demonstrating an uncommon ability to finish with either hand, the stamina to last 32 minutes per game, the ferocity to deal with a seemingly unending string of elite college big men in the Big Ten, among them Minnesota’s Daniel Oturu, Michigan State’s Xavier Tillman and Maryland’s Jalen Smith, who now are playing in the NBA. Garza averaged 23.9 points and 9.8 rebounds and ran off a string of 20-point games that reached 16.
He has failed to reach double-figure scoring only once in the past two seasons, in a blowout win over Michigan State last month that required him to contribute only 23 minutes and eight points. This is a better Hawkeyes team than any on which Garza has played and has designs on challenging for the Big Ten Tournament title and a Final Four appearance.
Obviously, he’d already accomplished a ton in college basketball by the time last season reached its disappointing conclusion, with the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although he was not considered a likely first-round NBA draft pick, he could have played professionally, as there were pro teams across the ocean eager to sign him. Garza chose, instead, to play another year with the Hawkeyes.
“There’s not one part of me that regrets my decision,” Garza said. “I love this place. I love my teammates. I love my coaches and I’ve loved every second of being here. Obviously, this year is a little bit different in terms of having to be hyper-focused on basketball, but the family environment we have at the University of Iowa makes it so much fun. It’s been truly a blessing to be on this team and play with some of the guys I do.”
Whereas last season Iowa finished ranked No. 25 in the AP poll and fifth in a loaded Big Ten before March Madness disappeared, this team is ranked No. 5 in the nation and third in the conference. That’s partly because shooter Jordan Bohannon returned to the team after recovering from hip surgery, Connor McCaffery’s passing ability produces 3.6 assists in 22 minutes per game, backup playmaker Joe Toussaint delivers another 2.3 assists in 11 minutes, talented freshmen Keegan Murray and Patrick McCaffery have deepened the rotation and guards Joe Wieskamp and CJ Frederick have become even more lethal as shooters. Iowa ranks third in the nation in 3-point shooting percentage.
The Hawkeyes also have become, after years of struggling, a more formidable defensive team. Over the course of Garza’s career, they finished 242nd, 111th and 97th in defensive efficiency according to KenPom.com. Even this season, after they lost four times in a stretch of five games, they slipped outside Division I’s top 100 in that category.
With Garza as the team’s last line of defense, Iowa has climbed to 58th. That’s not extraordinary proficiency, but it’s a massive improvement. And with the No. 2 offense at its disposal, defending at this level gives Iowa the potential to win many of the biggest games.
“I think we’re just really committed to understanding that if we want to win games, we have to play defense, and we have to get stops and we have to play hard every possession,” Garza said. “You can’t take any possessions off — especially when you’re playing the teams that you are in the Big Ten, because they’re going to make you pay. And that’s what’s happened to us.
“In that stretch where we dropped a couple, the interesting thing was, our offense was scoring really well, and then we had a little drought, and that’s where the game got away from us because we weren’t able to continue to get stops during that drought. Once we realized when we were able to get stops consistently throughout the game, our offense is going to come around at some point. We have the ability to score at a really high level.”
Garza believes he “100 percent” is better than the younger man who won last year’s Sporting News Player of the Year honor. The 2020 offseason was different than in the past because the pandemic affected so many aspects of his life, just like everyone else, but it did not deter him from investing an extraordinary amount of time and energy to enhancing his strength, stamina and basketball skill.
“I worked very hard this summer to try to improve myself as much as I could,” Garza said. “Because I knew when I came back to college, I wanted to help and lead this team to win championships, to put ourselves in position to make a run in March. I think we’ve got some great wins this year, and we’re not satisfied.
“I’m just thankful that I have the teammates I do that make me look good. Because I’m a big man, and for me to be able to score, I need to have some great guards who can put me in position to be able to do that, and they’ve done that countless times over my career.”