By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - The Iowa basketball program was coming off three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, five consecutive post-season tournament appearances and four consecutive 20-win seasons when Luka Garza committed to the Hawkeyes on Sept. 10, 2016.
It’s fair to say the circumstances have changed considerably since then.
Iowa failed to win 20 games in each of the past two seasons, while also missing the NCAA Tournament in both seasons.
The Hawkeyes weren’t even close to making the NCAA Tournament last season, or any postseason tournament for that matter, with records of 14-19 overall and 4-14 in the Big Ten.
Garza’s performance as a 6-foot-11 freshman center was one of the few bright spots to last season. His talent, work ethic and willingness to be a leader despite his youth shined brightly in an otherwise dark and gloomy season.
“We all understand last (season) happened, but we know that’s not us and that’s not what we came to this school to do,” Garza said Tuesday afternoon after practice. “And watching the way this team played before we got here, and specifically me watching the team before we got here, I know that we have the capability of being as good as those teams or even better.
“We are so talented and we’re working really hard to make sure we reach our potential because we didn’t even reach half of our potential last season. We just weren’t able to get to that, so it’s definitely providing everyone with a lot of extra motivation.”
Expectations were high at this time a year ago with four starters returning from an Iowa team that had won 19 games the previous season, including one game in the 2017 National Invitation Tournament. Iowa returned 77 percent of its offense from a team that had finished fifth in the Big Ten, and also added Garza and fellow 6-11 freshman Jack Nunge to an already deep roster.
Garza had picked Iowa over a long and distinguished list of scholarship offers from schools that included Indiana, Louisville, Notre Dame, Georgetown, Virginia Tech and Northwestern among others.
It was reasonable to think that Iowa was poised to make the NCAA Tournament heading into last season, or at least the NIT, but Garza and his cohorts never came close to performing at that level.
A season like no other
There were a few games when Iowa played well last season, including the final game when the Hawkeyes nearly upset Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament before losing in overtime to the eventual NCAA runner-up.
But for the most part, last season was a disaster and something Garza never had experienced from a losing standpoint.
He would agonize over the losses, sometimes until the early morning hours because he was too upset and frustrated to sleep.
“One-hundred percent the most frustrating season that I’ve ever had in terms of my entire career, high school, AAU, everything,” Garza said. “Just because at times we wanted it to happen so bad and it just wasn’t going the right way for us.
“Now we’re using that as motivation because no one wants to feel like how we felt after all those games. So I think it was definitely eye-opening to me. I’ve never had a losing season like that. So it’s a lot of motivation.”
Combine the losing with being far away from his home near Washington D.C. and Garza also had to contend with being homesick as a freshman.
He was fortunate that his father, Frank Garza, attended almost all of Iowa’s games last season, home and away. Frank played college basketball for Idaho, so he kind of knew what his son was up against, and that helped immensely.
“He helped me a ton,” Luka Garza said of his father. “He’s always been there throughout my entire career, especially in moments where I was losing my own confidence. Just having him, who’s seen my whole career and knows what I can do, helped me and filled me with more confidence.
“It was the same with the coaching staff. They were all there for me and supporting me through my individual frustration. But with the team, he was as close to being as frustrated as I was in terms of he wants to see me win and he knows that this team has talent. He’s seen it just from watching our games.”
Iowa's most glaring weakness
Anybody who watched Iowa play last season should know that defense, or the lack of it, was a huge problem throughout the season. It didn’t matter if Iowa played man-to-man or zone, or tried to apply full-court pressure, opponents averaged 78.7 points per game and faced little resistance against the Hawkeyes.
“We all from the coaching staff to all the players understand that we can score,” said Garza who posted double figures in scoring 20 times last season. “We are a great offensive team. But where our losses came from was our inability to get stops.
“So that’s been such a huge focus. In all these different types of drills we’re working on our defense and close-outs, just the mentality that you have to have on defense. This is definitely the most I’ve every trained as a team on defense.”
Garza struggled at times last season, but unlike his team, he eventually figured it out and would go on to have a solid season from a statistical standpoint.
He appeared in all 33 games, with 26 starts and ranked first on the team in blocked shots (32), second in rebounding (6.4), free throws made (92) and free throws attempted (135), and third in scoring (12.1).
Garza was also the first Hawkeye since Aaron White in 2012 to register at least four double-doubles as a freshman.
But the fact that so many of his milestone moments came during losses made it difficult and awkward for Garza to appreciate what he accomplished as an individual.
“It’s so hard because you want to imagine what that’s like if it’s a win,” Garza said. “You work so hard to play well. If the game has a different outcome, you’re in a whole different situation. Losing any game, it’s the same, no matter if I play well or I play terrible. There isn’t so much to be proud of in a loss.
“But I just wanted to continue to go out there and play as hard as I could. And some games, I was playing really well, but the team as a whole wasn’t. And you feel anger that you couldn’t have done even more or whatever the case may be. Losing always sucks.”
Despite all of the losing and the lack of chemistry on the court, Garza said the team never splintered and he never wavered or second-guessed his decision to be a Hawkeye.
Backup point guard Christian Williams quit the team the day before Iowa's first exhibition game in November, but his departure appears to have been an isolated incident.
"Since the moment I got here, these are my best friends,” Garza said of his Iowa teammates. “It’s been not hard at all to be away from home because I have my best friends here. These guys, they’re all great guys and we all care for each other and we’re really pushing each other this offseason, more so than last season.”
Tyler Cook's decision
Garza will have the luxury of playing alongside one of the Big Ten’s top power forwards with Tyler Cook returning for his junior season. The 6-9 Cook led Iowa in scoring last season and then tested the NBA Draft process this spring before deciding to return to college.
“I was nervous and excited because on one hand, you really want him to come back, and on one hand, I want what’s best for him,” Garza said. “He’s one of my best friends and, obviously, one of my teammates.
“So just watching that process I was supporting him all the way through. I was very excited when he came back, but even if he had decided to leave I would have been just as excited for him.”
In addition to his productivity on the court, Garza also emerged as a leader last season despite being a freshman. He led with his performance, with his words and with his work ethic and passion.
And he plans to build on that part of his game this season.
“I think it’ll be not easy, but I think it’s necessary, no matter if it’s hard, I have to do it,” Garza said of being a leader. “And I think I can help this team in that way. I think we’ll have multiple guys that have the same type of mindset that want to be one of the leaders, and I think having multiple guys with that confidence to be that leader is going to help us a lot.”
Determined to prove last season was a fluke
The challenge for the Iowa players is to prove that last season was a fluke, or just a temporary setback.
Iowa returns all five starters and will add two freshmen to the roster in 6-6 Joe Wieskamp and 6-4 shooting guard C.J. Fredrick. Wieskamp is expected to contribute immediately at small forward and possibly at shooting guard.
Redshirt freshman guard Connor McCaffery, who is the son of Iowa coach Fran McCaffery, also will be in the mix for playing time after appearing in just a few games last season because of injuries and illness.
Fran McCaffery said in an interview earlier this spring that his players have to be fully invested in order to improve defense.
"It's all part of having the right mindset to get stops," McCaffery said. "They have to be locked in to improving on defense and I think they are."
Garza has noticed the same thing during the offseason.
"We all have a very big focus on defense, because if we're able to be a team that gets stops consistently, we’re going to be real good,” Garza said.
Garza still thinks back to last season and there are times when he is reminded about what happened last season.
“Just even thinking back on it, the other day the Michigan State games was on TV and I’m watching that and, God, we lose and I’m just sad and still upset,” Garza said of Iowa’s 96-93 loss to the Spartans last season at Carver-Hawkeye Arena “And I think it’s good to feel that way because it motivates me to be better and it motivates everyone on this team to be better.
“And that’s what we’re working so hard for. We’re one-hundred percent going to be better and we’re going to achieve our goals.”