Iowa Men's Basketball

Luka Garza left Washington to be a capital gain for Iowa

Iowa senior star coming home Thursday for last time as collegian

Maryland guard Aaron Wiggins (2) has his shot challenged by Iowa center Luka Garza (55) during the Terrapins' 82-72 men'
Maryland guard Aaron Wiggins (2) has his shot challenged by Iowa center Luka Garza (55) during the Terrapins’ 82-72 men’s basketball win over the Hawkeyes last Jan. 30 at XFINITY Center in College Park, Md. (Terrance Williams/Associated Press)

It’s the final college homecoming for Luka Garza, but it’s not a full homecoming.

Returning to the DMV (Washington, D.C.-Maryland-Virginia) area as a senior for the Iowa men’s basketball team’s game at Maryland Thursday night won’t be quite the same without family and friends in the Xfinity Center.

“I’m always excited to play near home, to be close to family,” Garza said Tuesday. “This year there isn’t family at the game there, but it still means the same thing to me. Just knowing my mother and my dad are in the same place, kind of, it’s definitely a reassuring feeling.”

Garza grew up in the Virginia part of the DMV and attended Washington’s Maret School, a 650-student K-12 institution. Maret describes its core values as “respect + integrity, excellence + creativity, the individual + connectedness, and joy.”

That sounds like Garza, the Hawkeye. It was him when he was the Gatorade D.C. Player of the Year for the Maret Frogs.

He comes to Maryland averaging a national-high 27.5 points per game and is the national Player of the Year favorite as 2021 has begun. He had the benefit of playing for a high school coach Chuck Driesell who played for his father, Charles “Lefty” Driesell at Maryland in the 1980s, then was an assistant coach for him at James Madison. Chuck also was an assistant for Gary Williams at Maryland, and was a Division I head coach for five years at The Citadel.

He took the boys’ basketball coaching job at Maret the summer before Garza’s junior season there. He said Garza weighed almost 280 pounds as a sophomore, and urged the player to drop 30 pounds to improve his stamina and speed. Garza did so that summer, and Driesell found himself with a big-time prospect.

“He continues to get better every time I see him play,” Driesell said Tuesday. “He did that for me when I had him.”

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Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery first saw Garza at an AAU event he attended because his son, Connor, was playing in it. McCaffery was ahead of most college coaches in envisioning what Garza could become.

“He built a relationship with the coaches at Iowa going into his junior year,” Driesell said. “They saw him, they fell in love with him. They let him know how he fit their program before anybody else.

“They built a strong relationship, and he is a loyal kid. I know he values relationships. That was an important part for him.”

We wonder why top college players ever were passed over by top programs in their backyards. Driesell said he felt Garza was a major-college prospect when the player was a junior, but it wasn’t apparent to everyone else.

“I’ve been at the college level as a recruiter,” said Driesell, “and that’s part of the challenge, to make a guess or an educated guess as to where the kid’s going to be a year from now.

“Because of his size and because of his ability to shoot the ball, and his work ethic and his coachability, he was only going to get better. And he was 6-10, 6-11. There’s not a lot of guys like that out there.”

Garza said “I never grew up dreaming of playing at Maryland. I grew up dreaming of playing college basketball in general. I definitely would have liked to be a little more heavily recruited by Maryland, but I think that’s just the way it is.”

“You can’t recruit everybody,” Driesell said. “You’re going to hit and you’re going to miss. I’m sure (Maryland and other major programs in the region) had some pretty good players that year, too. There’s no exact science to recruiting.”

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Plus, Driesell had firsthand knowledge the college coaches didn’t, which was how hard Garza pushed himself.

“He put the work in from the day I met him,” Driesell said. “He was always finding ways to get better and he did not shy away from the process. He loves the process of getting better. That clearly has continued at Iowa.

“Coaches love to coach kids that are coachable, that want to listen, learn. Which he is. He’s tremendously coachable.

“But also, we love having guys you don’t have to ask to play hard. He plays hard in practice. I can’t emphasize that enough. He practiced hard all the time.

Driesell is 58 and has lived a basketball life, but says Garza “has really made my experience of watching college basketball a lot more fun.”

“He was so fun to coach. I continue to think the best will come his way.”

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

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