Luka Garza has made a concession, a rarity for him so far this season.
The Iowa basketball center has bowed to pressure from his family and elected to try wearing a mouthguard during Hawkeye games, starting Saturday night against Cincinnati in Chicago’s United Center.
But why? When Garza gets hit in the face, the Hawkeyes prevail.
He caught a shot to the mouth in Las Vegas last month, got four stitches, and returned to help the Hawkeyes finish off a win over Texas Tech. In a battle for the ball at Iowa State last week, teammate Joe Wieskamp’s elbow caught Garza in the mouth. Garza had a tooth shoved back into his gum. He returned to the game minutes later, and the Hawkeyes completed their victory over the Cyclones.
Through 11 games, eight of them wins, the junior is having quite a season. Most of it is related to production, not attacks on his mouth.
Garza is averaging 22.4 points, almost five points per game more than anyone else in the Big Ten. Only four Iowa players have ever averaged more over an entire season, and just one was a post player. No Hawkeye has averaged as much scoring since Fred Brown in 1970-71.
People beyond Iowa — ESPN’s Dan Dakich for one — are already calling Garza a first-team All-American. Fellow Iowa big man Ryan Kriener said he saw this coming.
“In the middle of the summer we were playing in open gym one day. I always kind of prided myself on being a pretty good interior defender. I just couldn’t do anything one day. He was making everything.
“I was like ‘Wow, if he keeps this up he’s going to be special.’ He’s been having a hell of a year this year for us. I’m really proud of the work he’s put in.”
It will get harder, presumably. Teammate Jordan Bohannon is out for the rest of the season, giving Iowa one less scoring threat. Big Ten teams and a Big Ten schedule can combine to be wearing.
“Teams are going to start taking away certain things,” Garza said Thursday, “and I’m going to have to score in different ways in the Big Ten. No one’s going to scout you like other Big Ten coaches. I’m excited for that challenge, honestly.”
Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery lathers praise on his players in interview sessions. A “phenomenal” here, a “sensational” there. His matter-of-fact statement about Garza may pack more punch than a superlative.
“I expected him to do it,” McCaffery said.
“He prepared for it. He wanted the challenge. I think anybody that knows him in any way is thrilled for him because they’ve seen how hard he worked to get there.
“I think the challenge for him will be to do it every night (against teams) that are focused on stopping him. That’s not easy.”
Saturday is the last real test for Iowa before 18 straight conference games after New Year’s. There is more need than ever before for Garza to produce the way he’s produced so far this season.
“I’ve always kind of been ready for this role,” he said. “I’ve been working a long time for this.”
What Iowa’s opposition surely understands by now is this: The man can take a punch. His teammates have no choice but to do likewise.
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“If you don’t,” Kriener said, “you’ll probably catch some flak from him afterwards. ‘I almost lost a tooth for Iowa State and I was out there two minutes later.’”
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