Iowa Men's Basketball

In Iowa, it's a slam dunk: Luka Garza for National Player of the Year

With weeks left to play, though, Dayton's Obi Toppin is favorite

Iowa center Luka Garza (55) shoots over fellow All-Big Ten candidate Jalen Smith of Maryland during a Jan. 30 game in Co
Iowa center Luka Garza (55) shoots over fellow All-Big Ten candidate Jalen Smith of Maryland during a Jan. 30 game in College Park, Md.

Maybe it’s ironic how closely “Garza” resembles “Groza.”

We could have the second great perceived slight of the last few months in Hawkeyeland when the Wooden Award, Associated Press College Basketball Player of the Year and Naismith Trophy in men’s basketball are awarded in a few weeks.

If Iowa’s Luka Garza doesn’t win any or all of those, Hawkeye fans — and Garza’s coaches and teammates — won’t take it well. Much like it was hard for many in Iowa to digest Georgia’s Rodrigo Blankenship winning the Lou Groza Award as the nation’s top place-kicker last December after Groza-finalist Iowa’s Keith Duncan made a Big Ten-record 29 field goals and was so clutch when those kicks mattered most.

The so-called snub of Duncan mystified many here. So would Dayton sophomore power forward Obi Toppin winning Player of the Year honors over Garza. Yet, Toppin is the favorite to win the award and Garza the No. 2 guy today in online betting circles.

Toppin is terrific, a scorer who is supremely athletic and powerful. He’ll take averages of 19.8 points and 7.6 rebounds into Dayton’s home game against George Washington Saturday night.

Most importantly, though, his team goes into that game with a 28-2 record and ranked fourth in the nation. No National Player of the Year since 2005 has been on a team seeded lower than third in the NCAA tournament. Dayton was a consensus No. 2 in bracketology entering the weekend. Iowa was a No. 6.

It can be a mistake getting too hung up on individual statistics because teams play different styles and players have different demands placed on them. Toppin averages 4.6 fewer field goal tries per game than Garza, and has four teammates who average from 8.6 to 14.9 points to Garza’s two. In Toppin’s latest game, a Dayton 84-57 victory at 20-win Rhode Island, he took just 11 shots yet still scored 20 points.

Toppin has an inside/outside game for a high-powered, efficient offense, and has added to his profile with some explosive dunking. Plus, his team hasn’t lost since Dec. 21.

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He was a late bloomer instead of a 4-star recruit, and helped carry Dayton from relative anonymity to a possible No. 1 seed in the NCAA tourney. His story is easy to appreciate.

However, no one in the nation has matched what Garza has done.

He goes into Iowa’s game at Illinois Sunday with 15 straight Big Ten games of at least 20 points. In the last 20 years, no one else in the conference did that in more than nine games in a row.

Garza also has 9.9 rebounds per game, the most by a Hawkeye since Reggie Evans in 2001-02. He has been the focal point of a 20-win team picked to finish eighth in the Big Ten in a league media poll last fall, and that was before Iowa lost starters Jack Nunge and Jordan Bohannon for most of the season.

Garza has 26.1 points per Big Ten game. If he scores 16 at Illinois, he’ll have the highest average in league play since Purdue’s Glenn Robinson in 1994. He is averaging 26.5 against ranked teams, and has faced 11 of them. Toppin has played one.

Not to look down on Dayton’s Atlantic 10 Conference, but you can’t ignore the reality of who Garza competes against game after game.

“The consistency of productivity considering the quality of teams in our league and the quality of big guy that he’s doing it against I think is what separates him,” Iowa Coach McCaffery said Monday. “I mean, you look down the list, every night, it’s (Daniel) Oturu, it’s Kaleb Wesson, Jalen Smith, and you look at those numbers, and they’re pretty impressive.

“It’s really hard to do in this league, knowing the quality of coach that we’re going up against and the things that they’re doing to stop him, and it just doesn’t seem to affect him in any way.”

Unless he starts saying bad things about babies and puppies, Garza will become Iowa’s first Associated Press first-team All-American since Chuck Darling in 1952. The program’s lone AP All-American of any kind this century, third-teamer Jarrod Uthoff in 2016. The most-recent Hawkeye to be an AP second-team selection was Ronnie Lester in 1979.

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Also, Garza will surely be the Big Ten Men’s Basketball Player of the Year. That award was first given after the 1984-85 season. No Hawkeye has won it. Before that, the Chicago Tribune’s Silver Basketball was the Big Ten’s MVP award. The last Hawkeye to win that was Sam Williams, in 1968.

Now, Iowa has a player knocking on the door to get elected national Player of the Year. It sure wouldn’t hurt his election hopes if his Champaign campaign stop is successful Sunday.

Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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