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Iowa center Luka Garza was surprised to see teammates leave, but says season expectations are unchanged. Hear more: Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Luka Garza didn’t know it at this time last summer, but there was a cyst growing inside him that would eventually require a scary surgery and a story that may find its way into medical textbooks.

Iowa’s starting center made a remarkably quick recovery and averaged 13.1 points on 53.1% shooting during a 23-12 season that ended in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

This summer, he just feels a familiar hunger burning inside him — to push himself to get better for a junior season in which he will be asked to do more than ever.

“(The nine-pound cyst) had no correlation with the way I was working out,” Garza told reporters last week when asked if he had curtailed his arduous training schedule this summer. “I’ve even stepped it up. I’m just that type of guy. I’ve never pushed myself to put myself at risk for stress fractures or anything like that. But I work hard and I love to work hard. That’s what I do.”

Garza, at 6-foot-11 and 245 pounds, said he is narrowing the focus of his workouts this summer. Improving on a 3-point shot he made with just 29% accuracy a year ago is one big goal.

The other is to try to replace the interior presence the Hawkeyes will be missing now that power forward Tyler Cook has decided to pursue a professional career one year early. Cook takes with him 1,315 points and 619 rebounds.

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Garza’s rebound average declined from 6.4 per game to 4.5 as a sophomore. He blocked only 17 shots after swatting 32 as a rookie. He knows he needs to become a better rim protector in order to help kickstart a Hawkeye offense that wants to get downcourt quickly.

“I’m working a lot on my agility, my footwork, doing different stuff with line jumps, box jumps. I’m lifting really hard,” Garza said.

“Just to be able to change shots around the rim, whether that’s taking charges or just walling up and making guys take tough 2s. That’s what I’m going to try to around the rim. I don’t think I did a great job of that last year and that’s one of the things that I looked at after the year was over that I wanted to improve. So I’m just going to do that to the best of my ability without getting in foul trouble.”

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Garza missed only three games last season despite the late-summer surgery. He did hit one February lull in which he scored only 16 points over four games on 5-for-25 shooting. It raised the question of whether he’d finally hit a wall physically after all he’d endured.

Not so, Garza insisted.

“I think it was more mental than anything,” he said. “When I get out there, I’m just playing. I could play 100 games a year, I feel like. I love playing basketball that way. So I don’t really get that fatigued. … I’m trying to improve myself physically and mentally for the moments when the pressure’s the highest.”

This is what the Hawkeyes need the most from Garza in Year 3. He has 56 starts under his belt for a team that is certain to return only two starters (sophomore forward Joe Wieskamp is the other). No one has to tell him what’s at stake.

“You work for these moments when you have to step up and become a more pivotal (player). I knew that’s what I wanted to do when I was coming here,” Garza said.

“I’m just working hard to become that guy that people look to like we looked to Tyler last year. And I’ve got to be able to be that inside presence for us to make teams collapse on us and get it out to our shooters. So I think you can’t really replace what he did, but I can do it in my own way.”

Garza’s own way starts with self-reflection and extreme toil. The results will be on display when the Hawkeyes hit the court Nov. 6 against Southern Illinois-Edwardsville.

Mark Emmert covers University of Iowa athletics for the Des Moines Register and Iowa City Press-Citizen.

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