By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Putting the ball in the basket never has been a problem for Iowa sophomore center Luka Garza.
Ever since he started playing basketball as a young child, Garza has shown a knack for being able to score.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery noticed it right away when he started recruiting Garza in high school.
“He could always score,” McCaffery said Tuesday. “He has an unbelievable knack for getting the ball in the basket. He will make a nine-footer while he's getting banged off the glass in traffic look like a layup. That's really hard to do.
“Then he'll step out and make a three, then make a 12-foot jumper, an 18-foot jumper, a 23-foot jumper, a shot fake one dribble pull-up. He has the total package when it comes to scoring the ball.”
The 6-foot-11 Garza will bring a 15.1 per-game scoring average into Thursday’s game at Indiana. That is the second highest average on the team behind Tyler Cook’s 16.2 average.
Garza has scored at least 16 points in each of the past seven games, and at least 19 points in each of the past five games.
When asked why Garza was scoring at such a high rate, McCaffery had a simple explanation.
“Well, he's healthy,” McCaffery said. “That's pretty much all it is. He was playing great before he got hurt and then when he was hurt and he wasn't playing, and then he was only playing a little bit. Now that he's healthy, he's doing what he's capable of doing. He's really worked hard to get to this point. He really put the time in this summer. I'm really proud of him.”
Garza missed nearly three weeks of practice and two games in late December because of a sprained ankle.
But he is healthy now and having one of the most productive seasons from a scoring standpoint for a sophomore center in the history of the Iowa program.
Greg Stokes and Acie Earl are believed to be the only sophomore centers to have averaged more points per game than what Garza is averaging now.
Stokes averaged 17.7 points per game as a sophomore during the 1982-83 season, while Earl averaged 16.3 points in the 1990-91 season.
“I think I’m just playing with a lot of confidence,” Garza said. “My teammates are finding me in my spots and I’m going out there and playing as hard as I can. I’m just been able to convert some shots and I just need to continue to play with confidence. It definitely helps to be back and not with a sprained ankle.”
Garza’s emergence as a reliable scorer was one of the few bright spots to last season. He averaged 12.1 points per game as a freshman and scored in double figures 20 times.
“That’s definitely been one of things just growing up that I’ve always been able to do,” Garza said. “And finding a way to be able to score easy at this level was something I had to adjust to. But I think I’ve been able to do that.”
The big difference between this season and last season is that Garza is now scoring at a high rate for a team that is having success.
The 20th-ranked Hawkeyes are coming off a 74-59 upset of then No. 5 Michigan last Friday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena and are 17-5 overall and 6-5 in the Big Ten.
Garza and his cohorts already have won three more games than they won during all of last season.
But now Iowa heads back on the road to face an Indiana team that finally is healthy and coming off an upset at Michigan State this past Saturday that ended a seven-game losing streak.
“They’ve been through some ups and downs with injuries and different stuff like that,” Garza said. “But they’re a really good team. And we should see them at close to full strength, which they haven’t been in a while.”
Garza and junior center Ryan Kriener both have played key roles on the frontline, alongside Tyler Cook. They give Iowa three reliable scorers, and with Garza and Kriener, Iowa has two centers who can score inside or on the perimeter.
“Luka and I benefit from each other a lot, whether it’s going at each other in practice or playing together in open gym and really getting that jell together so we can carry it over to games,” Kriener said. “I think our skill sets really complement each other well with the way we can go high-low and find out who has the better mismatch.”
Much of Garza’s offensive game is old-school in how he uses head fakes and a soft shooting touch to score. His approach is more fundamental than flash, and that could be due to the fact that Garza likes to watch tape of NBA players from years ago.
Garza’s father, Frank Garza, also played basketball and is very knowledgeable of the game.
Fran McCaffery credits Frank Garza’s influence for helping to make Luka a versatile scorer.
“If you know his father you can understand why he's like that,” McCaffery said. “They have a great relationship. Frank's a basketball historian. He's a bright guy. He's a thinker. He played himself, so he understands footwork. We talk about Jack Sikma and people like that that nobody talks about anymore unless they talk about the Sikma move.
“I think it's valuable information that he's gotten from his dad and from the tapes that he's watched. He's not making it up."
Sophomore centers of attention
A list of Iowa’s top sophomore centers in scoring
Greg Stokes, 1982-83, 17.7
Acie Earl, 1990-91, 16.3
Luka Garza, 2018-19, 15.1
Bill Logan, 1954-54, 14.3
Bruce King, 1974-75, 11.5
Kevin Kunnert, 1970-71, 10.0
George Peoples, 1963-64, 9.4
Charles Darling, 1949-50, 9.2
Guy Rucker, 1997-98, 6.9
Adam Woodbury, 2013-14, 5.7
Jared Reiner, 2001-02, 3.1