How Iowa stars Garza, Wieskamp and Bohannon meshed and are aiming at historic final ride in NCAA Tournament

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — They arrived at Iowa in single file: Jordan Bohannon, followed by Luka Garza and then Joe Wieskamp.

The point guard no other major-college team wanted. The center who ascended farther than anyone envisioned. The wing player who quietly bridged the gaps on a Hawkeye basketball squad that was flawed.

Last spring, when a pandemic spanned the globe and sports came to a halt, they looked to each other with one question: Do we end our college careers with one NCAA Tournament victory and go our separate ways, or take one last stab at achieving something historic?

Bohannon, Garza and Wieskamp are sequestered in an Indianapolis hotel this month because they chose the second option. That quest, their final Hawkeye act, begins at 5:25 p.m. Saturday with a first-round matchup against Grand Canyon to be played before a few hundred fans in Indiana Farmers Coliseum and broadcast to the world on TBS.

“I had a feeling about this team, and I was hopeful that (Bohannon and Garza) did, too, that together we could do something special,” Wieskamp said this week.“This is why we all came back.”

More:March Madness: How to watch, stream Iowa vs. Grand Canyon in the NCAA Tournament

Jordan Bohannon (right) and Luka Garza spoke last summer about their desire to play one final basketball season at Iowa, with the goal of an NCAA championship. Joined by junior Joe Wieskamp, they have led the Hawkeyes to a 2 seed in the tournament, which begins Saturday with a game against Grand Canyon.

Bohannon, Garza and Wieskamp are Iowa’s “Big Three,” producing 59% of the team’s scoring in a 21-8 season that has earned the program a 2 seed in March Madness for the second time in its history. They are surrounded with valuable role players on coach Fran McCaffery’s 11th and best collection of Hawkeyes, but there is no question that none of that success would have occurred this winter had they not made a pledge to each other last summer.

In separate interviews with the Register on Tuesday, the mutual respect Iowa’s stars have for each other was clear. But it was also apparent that this season was never guaranteed, that each of them had a difficult personal decision to make, and that each is aware that NCAA Tournament victories must be the ultimate payoff.

“We have all the right pieces this year, all the right skill sets,” Bohannon said.

“Now, to be sitting here in a position to hopefully hang a banner later in the year, that’s our mentality going forward.”

Jordan Bohannon: From Linn-Mar to Hawkeye king in assists and 3-pointers

Bohannon’s story is well-known in Iowa: The youngest of four brothers who all starred at Linn-Mar wasn’t deemed “Wisconsin material,” a deflating moment that left him all the more grateful when McCaffery extended a scholarship. He has fought for five years to show that he was misjudged by college scouts and underappreciated by a certain vocal segment of the Hawkeye fan base.

Bohannon has had surgery on both hips, the second of which left him feeling detached from the team and restless about his future last winter. Would he be better off finishing his college career somewhere else? Would he even be the same player he once was when his second rehabilitation was done?

Bohannon said he came to the realization that he needed to remain a Hawkeye after watching his team “unravel” when the 2020 NCAA Tournament was abruptly canceled. He was impressed by the way the athletes regrouped from that initial shock and leaned on each other. He wanted to remain part of that.

“This is home,” Bohannon said. “It opened my eyes to how much I truly belonged here.”

Bohannon and Garza spoke often heading into the summer, each trying to get a feel for what the other was going to do. Garza said that, when Bohannon finally put an end to any thought of transferring, it made his decision to put off a professional career easier.

Bohannon has played in 141 games, the most in Iowa men’s basketball history. He also holds career marks for assists (634) and 3-pointers (361). He led the Big Ten this winter by making 38.9% of his 3-pointers and ranked fourth with 4.5 assists per game.

His surgically repaired hips have held up fine.

Garza credits Bohannon for forcing him to sprint downcourt in Iowa’s transition offense, where he can position himself against a lone, helpless defender and score quick buckets before a double-team can arrive. Garza hadn’t played that style of basketball before.

More:Iowa's Garza named Big Ten's top player for second straight year; Wieskamp on second team

Bohannon and Garza also have developed a rapport on perimeter ball screens that puts a great deal of pressure on opposing defenders. Garza has made 76 3-pointers of his own the past two seasons, meaning Iowa always seems to have the advantage no matter how defenses play.

“You learn a lot through that. When to pop. When to roll. When to short roll,” Garza said of the hours of repetition. “I just developed as a ball-screen guy in pick-and-roll action by playing with a shooter like him.”

Wieskamp is from Muscatine and only two years younger than Bohannon, but never crossed paths on the high school or AAU circuits. It wasn’t until Wieskamp got to Iowa as McCaffery’s most highly ranked recruit that he gained an appreciation for how much value the veteran could add to his own game.

“Having a point guard that’s looking for you in transition, looking for you in the half-court, and just constantly encouraging you to take open shots, even force some stuff, because he believes in my ability, has definitely helped me,” said Wieskamp, who doesn’t defer as much to his teammates now when the Hawkeyes need a shooter to step up.

Bohannon was named honorable mention all-Big Ten this season. He probably took that as a slight.

Luka Garza: Fueled by tourney loss, he becomes most decorated Hawkeye

Garza is a 6-foot-11 native of Washington, D.C., who committed to Iowa before his senior season of high school, thanks in part to a lot of prodding from Wieskamp.

The two were at a National Basketball Players Association top 100 camp in Virginia that summer. Wieskamp, who was injured and unable to compete in scrimmages, had already declared his intention of becoming a Hawkeye. He knew that Garza was a top McCaffery target, and devoted his energy to bringing his future teammate firmly into the fold.

“Every single second he was talking to me about coming to Iowa,” Garza recalled. “When we’d walk to and from our dorm room to the gym, I was either with Joe or I was with Connor (McCaffery, Fran’s oldest son and also a Hawkeye starter). They wouldn’t leave me alone. I don’t talk about that enough, but Wiesy was an avid recruiter to get me to come to the University of Iowa.”

Garza was a solid contributor in his first two seasons as a Hawkeye, averaging 12.1 and 13.1 points per game, respectively. The final contest of his sophomore year was an overtime loss against 2 seed Tennessee in an NCAA Tournament game in Columbus, Ohio. Iowa came up agonizingly short of its first Sweet 16 berth in 20 years.

Garza had a fine showing, with 13 points. But Bohannon said he sensed something stewing inside the big man after that loss. No one could have predicted he’d become a national player of the year contender, of course, but there was the definite sense that Garza was about to push himself harder than ever.

More:Iowa's Luka Garza is an unlikely college basketball star with the help of grueling workouts

“He kind of committed to raising his game even more because of the fashion that we lost, that we were right there, down to a couple of possessions,” Bohannon said. “I know he felt in his heart that if he would have made different plays here or there or stepped up at different times, that we would have won that game. I think going through that summer, he really took that to heart.”

All Garza has done since is carve out a personal place in Hawkeye history, with back-to-back seasons as a unanimous all-American. His consistency in those 60 games has been amazing, averaging 24 points on 54% shooting while defenders are constantly clawing at him.

This season, for the first time, Garza has a positive assist-to-turnover ratio. He knew he had to become better at finding teammates out of double-teams, and has done so successfully 52 times.

Wieskamp is thankful to have been the beneficiary, both of some of Garza’s passes, but also of the extra defensive attention his center draws. It makes Wieskamp’s task easier.

“It provides driving lanes, chances for pull-up jumpers,” Wieskamp said. “When he sets a ball screen, they’re trying to get back out to him because he can shoot it well from 3, so that provides me more openings as well.”

Garza said last summer that he came back for his senior season at Iowa in order to chase a championship. But it was also to better impress NBA scouts. That much he has done. He is now seen a surefire draft pick, with some experts even projecting him in the first round.

More:Iowa basketball star Luka Garza named first-team AP All-America

Joe Wieskamp: Skilled Muscatine native arrives and Iowa turnaround begins

Wieskamp has always had elite skills as a shooter, rebounder and defender. Garza said he recognized it from their first meeting.

“I consider myself a scorer. I kind of know who a scorer is when I meet them. Joe is a scorer,” Garza said. “But more than that, his unselfishness and his ability to defensive rebound really helped us. He shifted us from where we were to being in the NCAA Tournament.

“He was the missing piece.”

The Hawkeyes went 14-19 in a disappointing season before Wieskamp’s arrival. He was essentially the only addition to the team in 2018-19, since CJ Fredrick redshirted that year.

Iowa is 65-31 since Wieskamp stepped immediately into its starting lineup, never missing a game. No one player can ever make that much difference, but this is certainly no coincidence.

Wieskamp is the rare star player in high school who willingly adapts to a college role that finds him playing away from the basketball. That is important for the Hawkeyes because the offense is so often dependent on Bohannon and Garza.

Wieskamp has learned to get his scoring opportunities in transition and to make very quick decisions when passed the ball in half-court sets.

Joe Wieskamp's third season as a Hawkeye has been his most productive yet, and that has NBA teams awaiting his services. The Muscatine native was "the missing piece" in Iowa's rise, teammate Luka Garza says.

“He’s more downstream” is how Garza terms it.

“He’s really evolved in that way since he got here. His ability to create shots on his own and make tougher shots, that’s made him the player he is.”

As a junior, Wieskamp has recorded career-highs in scoring (14.7 points per game), rebounding (6.6) and 3-point percentage (47.3). The rebounding has been vital because Iowa starts the undersized Connor McCaffery (6-5) at power forward in what is essentially a four-guard lineup.

The statistical improvement was enough to net Wieskamp second team all-Big Ten honors. In the process, he has solidified himself as an NBA Draft pick.

Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic erased any opportunities to work out for NBA teams. It cast doubt on whether pro seasons would occur anywhere. Because of that uncertainty, Wieskamp waited and watched what Bohannon and Garza would do. He was relieved when they decided to remain Hawkeyes for another winter. That left no doubt about what he would do.

Wieskamp’s best year has brought him to 1,250 career points, 24th in Iowa history. But he, too, is almost certainly gone after this one.

Iowa's 'Big Three' hope their final act together is NCAA Tournament run

Bohannon, Garza and Wieskamp give the Hawkeyes a dynamic player at every level. They are the primary reasons Iowa ranks second in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to Ken Pomeroy’s analytics. And they are also why the Hawkeyes figure to be so difficult for opposing teams to get a handle on.

Garza said he’s noticed the past two years that Big Ten Conference coaches are finding ways to halt Iowa’s offensive output. But teams like Grand Canyon, from the Western Athletic Conference? For them, it will be a brand-new calculus, one Garza is confident will favor the experienced Hawkeyes.

This will all play out in Indianapolis over the course of, Iowa hopes, the next three weeks. One final chance for the Hawkeye trio to attack the quartet of goals that have brought them here: The Hawkeyes’ first Sweet 16 spot since 1999; a first Elite 8 since 1987; a first Final Four since 1980; a first championship ever.

“I wanted to play with these guys, and I wanted to win. If it was a different team, maybe I wouldn’t have come back,” Garza said.

“These guys are my brothers, and it’s the most fun I’ve had playing basketball ever.”

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.