By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - There are times when Luka Garza makes putting the ball in the basket look so easy.
Like the times when he establishes low post and then turns and makes a short jump hook shot from about two feet.
Or the times when he steps out to 3-point range and drains a shot.
Or when he performs two or three nifty post moves then uses the rim, or the backboard, as a protector before making a one-handed, shovel shot off the glass.
Or when he grabs an offensive rebound and then makes a short put-back.
Or when he catches a post feed and then turns and makes a jump shot, sometimes off the glass depending on his angle.
Or when he gets rewarded for his constant hustle by making a layup in transition.
Garza’s ability to score has been evident since he arrived at Iowa two years ago. He averaged 12.1 points per game as a freshman and 13.1 points per game last season.
So it was logical to think that his scoring average would rise again this season, especially without having to defer to Tyler Cook anymore, which often was the case over the past two seasons.
But nobody, except for maybe those in Garza’s inner circle, had reason to expect this much of an increase in his scoring output.
The 6-foot-11 Garza leads the Big Ten in scoring with a 22.3 per-game average, and is coming off a 75-62 victory at Northwestern on Tuesday in which he scored 27 points in just 24 minutes of playing time.
Iowa is 9-2 in games this season in which Garza has scored at least 20 points.
Iowa is also 12-5 overall and 3-3 in the conference heading into a critical three-game home stretch that starts with Michigan on Friday.
Garza isn’t just scoring a lot of points. He is also averaging 10.2 rebounds per game for a team that has exceeded expectations after losing two starters to injuries, including senior point guard Jordan Bohannon.
Former Iowa star Adam Haluska said Wednesday on the Allhawkeyes radio show and podcast that he has been “blown away” by how well Garza is playing. Haluska also said that Garza is playing as well as any big man in the history of the Iowa program, and compared his impact to what Megan Gustafson did for the Iowa women’s basketball team last season as the consensus National Player of the Year.
And the numbers support that bold statement.
“He is one of the best big men that has ever walked through and worn the black and gold,” Haluska said. “What he does is unbelievable and it’s not - it’s grit and hard work. It you’ve got young kids that are watching the game, or high school, whatever, you can learn a lot from how he plays. His motor does not stop.”
You have go back all the way to Acie Earl in the early 1990s to find an Iowa center who has produced at the level that Garza has so far this season.
Before Earl, it was Greg Stokes in the mid-1980s, Bruce "Sky" King in the mid-1970s and Kevin Kunnert in the early 1970s, who dominated in the post for Iowa. But that’s about it during the past half century.
Charles Darling and Don Nelson also the stuffed stat sheet at while playing center for Iowa in the early 1950s, and early 1960s, respectively.
But that's still just a handful of post players who have produced at the level Garza is now, and that dates back 70 years.
Reggie Evans averaged a double-double in each of his two seasons at Iowa from 2000-02, but he played power forward more than center.
As far as centers go, Garza’s statistics compare favorably with the best who have ever won an Iowa uniform.
Kunnert averaged more rebounds per game than Garza. Earl was a better defender than Garza. And King and Stokes were more athletic.
But none of them averaged as many points as Garza is averaging now.
Haluska is actually the last Iowa player to average at least 20 points per game during a season, as he averaged 20.5 points per game as a senior in 2006-07.
Garza is rewarding Fran McCaffery for believing in him when most other power five coaches didn’t.
Garza was a guest on the Allhawkeyes radio show on Wednesday and the Washington D.C. native explained why he picked Iowa over a host of other scholarship offers, and it mostly came down to his relationship with Fran McCaffery.
“The main thing was Coach McCaffery,” Garza said. “There was no other coach that understood my game better and that comes from being early. He was my fourth offer after my sophomore year, so he recruited me for basically three years. He was there before a lot of big schools came. Going into my senior summer, I had 10 offers and only one of them was high major and that was Iowa.
Garza wasn’t in the best shape when McCaffery offered him a scholarship before his junior year of high school. But Garza used the offer as motivation to change his body.
Garza had gained some weight following surgery for bone spurs, so he spent a month in Hawaii with his father, Frank Garza, during the summer before his junior year of high school, and lost about 30 pounds.
Luka trained under the supervision of Frank’s college basketball coach, Bill Trumbo, and also started eating healthier.
“I gained weight, obviously, from not playing,” Garza said. “This is kind of where I turned myself from a mid-major player, getting mid-major offers, to someone who was a high-major player. I was in Hawaii with my dad’s college coach and I dropped 30 pounds in one month.
“I went from 265 to 235. That’s when I started to take a corner because I was never really athletic in my career and at this point was the most athletic I had ever been. It got me to a point where I could run the floor. I could jump a little bit higher and do different stuff.”
By the time Luka returned home, he had transformed his body, and his recruiting stock.
When it was time to make a decision about college, Garza considered some other schools, but no other school could match what he had developed with McCaffery in terms of trust and respect.
"I knew this was the place for me because no coach understood my game better and I knew when I came here I had the opportunity to do something special," Garza said.