Iowa Men's Basketball

Iowa basketball: Staying grounded mentally is no problem for Luka Garza

Hawkeyes' scorer-extraordinaire learned from short slump last year

Iowa center Luka Garza (55) wraps a shot around Michigan's Jon Teske (15) during the Hawkeyes' 90-83 win over the Wolver
Iowa center Luka Garza (55) wraps a shot around Michigan’s Jon Teske (15) during the Hawkeyes’ 90-83 win over the Wolverines last Friday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Garza scored 33 points. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

It seemed you couldn’t watch a college basketball game on television last weekend without hearing an announcer refer to Iowa’s Luka Garza.

The junior center scored 60 points over two games last week, Iowa’s wins over Northwestern and Michigan. He’s averaging 22.9 points and 10.2 rebounds per game, and he’s at 28.0 and 10.1 in Big Ten play.

Garza averaged 29.8 points in the Hawkeyes’ five games against Associated Press Top 25 teams. According to sports data/analytics company Stats Perform, Kevin Durant of Texas and Michael Beasley of Kansas State are the only two players in the last 15 seasons to average 25 points and 10 rebounds against ranked opponents, with a minimum of five games.

So how does Garza not get his head puffy or at least turned by all the praise floating his way. Not to mention his second Big Ten Player of the Week honor, which came Monday?

“With experience, I think I’ve learned I can’t let that stuff get to me,” Garza said last week. “Last year when I had a really good stretch and there was a lot of media attention on me, I followed that up with one of my worst stretches in my career.”

Garza was referring to a seven-game midseason stretch of Big Ten games in which he averaged 19.3 points. That was immediately followed by a four-game period in which he totaled just 16 points.

“I think that was one of my focuses going into the offseason,” Garza said, “just being mentally ready no matter what’s going on around me, to never get too high, never be too low. Just continue to push forward.

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“That’s something I’ve focused on my entire career, but especially this year. I’ve seen more progress, having blinders on, (dwelling on) what I want for this season for our team.”

Frank Garza is Luka’s father and basketball mentor. Frank played at the University of Idaho, averaging 14.3 points his senior season. He said in addition to the three daily summer workouts Luka did back home in Washington, D.C., his son also worked at “the mental preparation, what it’s like to perform at that level and keep your perspective.”

OK, but Frank, did even you see 23 points a game coming? Uh, yes.

“It’s like the Velveteen Rabbit said,” Frank said Monday by phone. “Anything you ever achieved had to have been imagined first, and it’s true.

“If you’d given Luka 15 more minutes (per game) last year, he’d have the same numbers as he has now. Now, it was a different team last year and it wouldn’t have worked functionally, but if he’d played 15 more minutes he’d have had more (points) than he has now.”

It wasn’t just Dad who saw this kind of production potential from Luka.

Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery, Frank said, “told me he’ll score over 2,000 points. That was when Luka was 15. I’ve grown to appreciate his vision immensely.”

Garza is at 1,231 points. Even if the Hawkeyes have deep runs in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments, he’s not getting to 2,000 this season. (The school record is Roy Marble’s 2,116.) However, if he comes back for his senior season ...

Yes, that question has already arisen, because looking ahead is as much a thing in sports as living in the moment. The answer, of course, isn’t set in stone in January. Don’t assume Garza will take off, though.

“I’m old-school,” Frank said. “I like the idea of four years like (Wisconsin All-America forward) Frank Kaminsky played. I thought that worked out very well.

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“Luka still has a lot to show, being able to continuously overcome speed and quickness and jumping ability. You’re starting to see more of it.”

Frank said he was in the gym with Luka Sunday before flying home. He said it’s time for his son to pull out a few moves he hasn’t used this season “because he hasn’t had to. But with the middle plugged up, he’s free to do some other things.”

Garza had 10 baskets last Friday in the 90-83 win over Michigan. Five were layups. Three were midrange jumpers, and two were 3-pointers.

Garza adding moves to his repertoire in late January is the answer to this “Jeopardy!” question: What is something the rest of the Big Ten doesn’t want to hear?

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

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