By Tyler Devine
IOWA CITY, Iowa - Within 24 hours on the second weekend in September, the Iowa men's basketball team had all but filled out its 2017 recruiting class.
Three-star forwards Luka Garza, a native of Washington D.C., and Jack Nunge, a native of Newburgh, Ind., pledged their verbal commitments to Iowa on back-to-back days after taking officials visits to Iowa on Sept. 10. They will do the same with regard to signing their letters of intent during the early signing period, which started on Wednesday. Garza signed his letter on Wednesday, while Nunge is expected to sign on Thursday.
The 6-foot-10, 230-pound Garza sees signing his letter of intent as a way to end his recruiting process and focus on his senior season.
“It’s very exciting," Garza said. "You know, I’ve worked very hard to get to this point and it’s just another start of another journey which I’m very excited for. It’s going to be really great. I’m fortunate I found the place I’m going to go to school relatively early so I’ve been really focusing on my senior season. Signing is just going to be the pinnacle of that so then it will be complete focus on my season and then after that just getting ready and being excited to be on campus and start there.”
West High senior guard Connor McCaffery also is committed to Iowa's 2017 class, but he didn't sign on Wednesday. The son of Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery is waiting to see how the scholarship situation sorts itself out with none currently available for a third player in the 2017 class.
Garza and Nunge have stayed in close contact since visiting Iowa together and Garza sees an opportunity for them to blossom together at Iowa.
"We’ve been back and forth many times just talking and supporting each other," Garza said. "I committed before him, but he told me before he was going to commit so we kind of bonded over that. We both know we’re going to have a great time and our games really complete each other in terms of when we’ll be on the court together in the coming years. It’s going to be hard to stop.”
Iowa was among the first to offer Garza a scholarship last June. This past summer he saw Garza's recruitment blow up, with him receiving offers from Louisville, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, Georgetown, Indiana and Georgia, among others.
Fran McCaffery persistence ultimately helped land Garza, although Garza says he knew soon after he visited Iowa for the first time that it was the place for him.
"I knew Iowa was the place for me almost all along," Garza said. "Coach McCaffery got involved very early in my recruiting process and he never wavered at all and that was big for me. He really stayed consistent from the time he started recruiting me all the way through. He watched me blow up in terms of recruiting and get a lot of high major offers. I could just tell that he was my coach and that was the situation I needed to be in.
"Every visit I went on I felt most comfortable with the coaching staff and the players at Iowa more than any other school that I went to. There definitely isn’t a better fit anywhere for me. I feel the system at Iowa is going to be perfect for me. With my ability to go inside and outside and everything like that.
"There’s definitely not anything bad about it to me, I’m just very excited to focus on my season and end the recruiting process completely.”
Garza's versatile skillset isn't the only thing that caused McCaffery to recruit Garza hard throughout the process. Garza's work ethic also got his future coach's attention.
It was important that McCaffery land a big man with 7-1 center Adam Woodbury having used up his leigibility last season.
"Well, I think obviously after Woodbury graduated last year we really only had one center, and Luka can play power forward or center, it doesn't really matter," McCaffery said. "That was a position we weren't looking at. But it's still a skillset that you're going to try to put on your basketball team, if you can. And we committed to him right away. We put the offer on the table and really recruited him hard. Others were a little more wait-and-see. And then, of course, at the end of the summer he was playing as well as anybody in the country, and that's why all the scholarships came his way at that time.
"I was happy to see him have that experience and earn that kind of respect and recognition. You don't always look for competition when you're trying to get a guy to commit. But I had tremendous respect for how he trained and how he prepared and how he got himself to that point. Some guys have 39 major offers when they're in ninth grade. It took a little while for him. And to watch a guy earn it like that is impressive. I'm very proud to have him in a Hawkeye uniform."
McCaffery was not able to comment on Nunge during his weekly press conference on Wednesday because Nunge hadn't signed his leter of intent. NCAA rules prohibit coaches from commenting on a specific recruit before the recruit has signed a letter of intent. Since Garza had signed Wednesday morning, McCaffery was able to dish out some high praise for the high school senior, including a comparison to an NBA legend.
"Thrilled with Luka," McCaffery said. "I saw him two years ago now and fell in love with his game. What's interesting is how his game has transformed. I loved his game initially. He was an incredible shooter for a guy that big. He was big, thick and physical, and he has subsequently changed his body. He lost 30 to 35 pounds. He's quicker, he's more mobile, he's bouncier off the floor, he uses his length.
"So he's a rare combination of a guy with a really good low-postgame who can stretch the floor and make threes and who understands how to compete on every possession, and that's a rare combination when you get a guy who is 6'10" and a 7'3" wing span and can stretch the floor and play smash mouth inside. Up and unders and jump hooks, and those kinds of moves, you don't see a lot of that anymore. He's effective.
"He's a gamer, on top of which he's got a phenomenal attitude and an incredible work ethic. So you put all that together, you've got something special. He reminds me a little bit of Kevin McHale."