By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa freshman center Luka Garza has no plans to challenge teammate Jordan Bohannon to a 3-point shooting contest anytime soon.
But Garza is filled with confidence heading into this week’s Big Ten Tournament where 12th-seed Iowa will face No. 13 seed Illinois in the first round on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
The Washington D.C. native is shooting better than 55 percent from the field and has been one of the bright spots in an otherwise dark season for the 13-18 Hawkeyes.
“I’m feeling great and trust the work that I’ve put in,” Garza said before practice on Monday. “Just every time it comes off my hands, I feel like it’s going in. I’m just shooting with confidence. That’s what the coaches and all the guys have instilled in me.”
The 6-foot-11 Garza has scored in double figures in 18 games this season, including the final four regular-season games.
Over the previous 25 seasons, just five Big Ten freshmen have averaged 11 points, six rebounds, one assist, and one block per game. Garza averages 11.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.1 assists, and one block.
Unlike a lot of players his size, Garza's offensive game isn't just limited to the paint. He likes shooting from the perimeter and has made 13 3-point baskets this season. He also shot nearly 50 percent from 3-point range as a senior in high school.
"I was so much bigger than a lot of other people (in high school) so I kind of went more inside," Garza said. "But my senior year I was like 48 percent from three. So I've always prided myself on shooting outside jumpers."
Garza knows his limitations, though, and he wouldn't dare to challenge Bohannon to a 3-point shooting contest. Bohannon leads Iowa with 88 3-point baskets this season.
"I don't think so," Garza said laughing.
Garza didn't make the Big Ten All-Freshmen team, which was announced on Monday, but that probably was due partly to Iowa's struggles this season. He did have a stretch where he scored six or fewer points in six of seven games in late November and early December. But Garza bounced back to score in double figures in 10 of Iowa's last 15 Big Ten games.
Garza picked Iowa over a host of scholarship offers from some of the premier programs in the country.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery spent a lot of time and effort recruiting Garza and McCaffery knew what he was getting when Garza signed with the Hawkeyes. McCaffery watched Garza play on the AAU circuit numerous times, including against McCaffery’s son, Connor McCaffery, who is a freshman guard on the Iowa team.
So there is nothing Garza has done this season that has surprised Fran McCaffery.
“I’m in a little bit different situation with him because I had a chance to see him a lot on the AAU circuit,” Fran McCaffery said. “I saw him play against Connor in a tournament and I saw him in St. Louis with Connor. So I got to really watch him and then we started seeing him on the EYBL circuit and it was a no-brainer.
“I just love the kid, his tenacity.”
Garza had one of his best games this season against Illinois, scoring 19 points and grabbing 11 rebounds in Iowa’s 104-97 victory on Jan. 11 in Champaign, Ill. He scored 17 points in the second half to help Iowa erase a 13-point halftime deficit. It was Iowa's only victory on the road in the Big Ten this season.
Wednesday’s game against Illinois will be Garza’s first chance to play in Madison Square Garden, but he is no stranger to what is called the world’s most famous sports arena.
He has a relative who plays basketball for St. John’s, which plays numerous games at Madison Square Garden.
“My cousin plays for St. John’s, he’s a senior there, and that’s their home floor, so I’ve been there quite a few times to watch him play,” Garza said. “But I’ve never had a chance to play there, myself. So I’m excited to be back on the East Coast and I’m going to try to make something happen in the Garden.”
"It’s a legendary place to play and something I’ll remember forever. So I’m going to try and make the most out of it.”
Iowa vs. Illinois
When: Wednesday, 4:30 p.m.
Where: Madison Square Garden, New York City
What: Big Ten Tournament first-round game