NCAA Tournament: Meet the Danish basketball newcomer who will tangle with Iowa's Luka Garza

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

Asbjorn Midtgaard didn’t start playing basketball until age 15.

It’s not a popular sport in Helsingor, Denmark.

But Christian and Ann-Marie Midtgaard told their son he had to be active in something. Asbjorn tried soccer and team handball, the sport his mother excelled at. He dabbled in martial arts.

As he kept growing, eventually reaching 7 feet, the best option became logical.

Midtgaard was unaware when he first picked up a basketball that March Madness even existed. Eight years later, he is about to step into that singularly American passion, and will test himself against a player many consider to be the best in the 68-team field.

“I’m up for it. We’ll see what happens,” Midtgaard said Tuesday from his Indianapolis hotel, with four days to prepare for Iowa all-American center Luka Garza.

“I’ve got to keep him off the block and make sure he isn’t comfortable. That’s what we’ve got so far. He’s got all those moves and he’s got great touch. He’s a national player of the year candidate for a reason.”

More:Luka Garza on verge of entering Hawkeye record book: 'I got really lucky to be in this program'

Midtgaard is the senior center for Grand Canyon, a university in Phoenix that is making its first appearance in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. He averages 14 points and 10 rebounds per game, connecting on an astonishing 71% of his field-goal attempts.

Grand Canyon center Asbjorn Midtgaard shoots over Utah Valley defenders during a home game March 5. Midtgaard, who took up basketball at age 15 in his native Denmark, is the leading scorer on an Antelopes team making its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament. On Saturday, he will test himself against Iowa all-American Luka Garza.

The Antelopes (17-6) are a 15 seed after winning the Western Athletic Conference championship Saturday. They flew to Indianapolis the next day, made it through COVID-19 quarantine, and had their first practice Tuesday.

Iowa (21-8) is a 2 seed in the West Regional, a 16-point favorite to squash Grand Canyon. Garza is a two-time all-American averaging 23.7 points and 8.8 rebounds.

The teams will meet at 5:25 p.m. CT Saturday at Indiana Farmers Coliseum, a game broadcast on TBS.

Iowa's Luka Garza gets another chance to size up a 7-footer in the low post

Garza said Tuesday he was already looking forward to becoming acquainted with Midtgaard, another big man on a long list of challengers he has seen this winter. Garza had his scouting report prepared.

“For a guy who takes the third-most shots on the team to be the leading scorer, you can tell that the guy, when he gets the ball in his hands, he’s able to score pretty well,” Garza said of Midtgaard. “Obviously, he’s a strong guy, can finish through contact. He’s good on the block. I’m excited to match up with a big like him.

“It’s a unique year in terms of how many guys are playing back to the basket. It’s really fun to go out there and compete with guys like that.”

It’s true. Rumors of the demise of the traditional low-post basketball center may have been greatly exaggerated. In the Big Ten Conference, Garza was greeted by Kofi Cockburn of Illinois, Purdue’s Trevion Williams, Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson and more. It was a grind night in and night out.

Midtgaard didn’t face that level of competition, but he did tangle twice with Utah Valley’s 6-11 Aimaq Fardaws, who led the nation with 15 rebounds per game. The Antelopes split those contests, with Midtgaard accumulating 23 points and 17 rebounds.

That was just two weeks ago. This is a much different March setting, and Midtgaard knows it. He’s never experienced anything like a nationally televised matchup against a player like Garza.

Luka Garza is averaging 23.7 points per game in his senior season at Iowa. He is a two-time all-American, hoping to lead his second-seeded Hawkeyes on a long run in the NCAA Tournament. That begins Saturday against Grand Canyon.

Midtgaard’s basketball journey has been accelerated.

After two years on a local club team in Denmark, Midtgaard was good enough to compete as an amateur in that nation’s professional Basketligaen.

That’s where he got attention from U.S. colleges. Two of them — Wichita State and TCU — sent coaches over to take a look. Midtgaard signed on with the Shockers and headed to the state of Kansas in 2017.

Wichita State made the NCAA Tournament that year, but Midtgaard didn’t make an appearance. In retrospect, he said, perhaps he should have redshirted as a freshman.

His sophomore season was his best, as he got into 34 games, with three starts, and averaged 3.9 points and 3.1 rebounds. He was second on the Shockers with 27 blocked shots. He made 63.2% of his shots, second-best in program history.

But Midtgaard was stalled by a foot injury that kept him out of action for the entire summer heading into his junior year. He struggled to find playing time behind all-conference center Jaime Echenique. He averaged only 1.5 points and 2 rebounds.

Asbjorn Midtgaard comes to America, and now tangles with the nation's best

Bryce Drew had seen Midtgaard practice and play for Wichita State as part of his broadcast duties with ESPN. So when he became the coach at Grand Canyon last March, knowing Midtgaard was looking for a new opportunity, he brought the Dane to Phoenix.

First, though, there was a pandemic to contend with. Midtgaard stayed in Kansas with the family of his fiancee, taking long walks on their acreage to remain active.

There was barely any basketball.

“I did dribble drills in the driveway,” Midtgaard said.

Eventually, Midtgaard discovered a new role with a new set of teammates. He is the star, starting alongside 6-10 power forward Allesandro Lever of Italy. Drew calls them his “twin towers.”

Midtgaard has studied his basketball history since coming to America, where the sport was invented and has become ingrained. In that respect, he is very similar to Garza, who also loves exploring the roots of the game.

Midtgaard calls himself an “old-school big man.”

That means operating in the low post, being physical, setting hard screens and fighting for every rebound. He joked that “a quarter” of his baskets are dunks, which accounts for his gaudy shooting percentage.

His favorite current NBA player is Steven Adams of the New Orleans Pelicans. Midtgaard admires his toughness. That’s what he wants to bring to the game as well.

Midtgaard came to Grand Canyon with the goal of getting the team to its first NCAA Tournament. That was the hard part. And now it gets even harder. He is well aware that only eight 15 seeds have ever won their tournament opener.

“We’re just so grateful,” Midtgaard said of getting a taste of March Madness. “We’re so excited to see what we can do.”

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.