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Leistikow: Luka Garza's injury, Iowa's hard-headed toughness emerge at Michigan State

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

EAST LANSING, Mich. — The last thing the Iowa basketball team needs is another injury to worry about, especially when it comes to the eventual 2020 Big Ten Conference player of the year.

Luka Garza acknowledged Tuesday night, following No. 17 Iowa’s 78-70 loss at 24th-ranked Michigan State, that he’s not 100%. A foot/ankle injury the 6-foot-11 center suffered Feb. 16 at Minnesota is lingering, and it certainly couldn’t have gotten better while he played 39 minutes, 36 seconds against the 24th-ranked Spartans.

Luka Garza, right, and Xavier Tillman had some physical battles during Michigan State's 78-70 win against Iowa on Tuesday night.

He got kicked in the head by Xavier Tillman. He repeatedly crashed to the hardwood. This was a bruising, physical game. Garza said Michigan State was probably more physical with him than any team has been this season. He ended up with 20 points and nine rebounds on 8-for-21 shooting, his 13th straight game scoring 20-plus. That ties the school record set by Fred Brown in 1971.

But ... Obviously the biggest concern is the injury, and what it means for the Hawkeyes (19-9 overall, 10-7 Big Ten) in their final three regular-season games and beyond.

“Trying to rehab as much as possible,” Garza said. “It’s not severe, but every game you land on it weird a couple times, and it starts to hang on you. For me, I don’t think it really affects me that much. It’s going to take a lot for me not to play.”

The Breslin Center is the only arena in the 14-team Big Ten in which visiting media can sit courtside. That perspective was invaluable Tuesday to understand just how physically demanding these games are.

To watch Garza pick himself up off the floor time after time was impressive enough. To learn that he’s fighting an injury actually made his case for national player of the year that much stronger.

How does he keep going?

“I feel like I would be doing a disservice to (teammates),” Garza said, “if I wasn’t giving my all 100% of the time.”

One tweet I saw referred to Garza as “Iron Man.” That’s honestly hard to dispute.

Garza was banking on Wednesday’s off day from practice to recharge.

“I’ll be back and healthy,” said the ever-confident “Iron Man,” who is averaging 26.2 points in Big Ten games. “I can play 40 every night. I’m just in that kind of shape.”

Connor McCaffery continues to win over Hawkeye fans.

There was a time earlier in his career when the coach’s son was more polarizing for the fan base. Now, the redshirt sophomore has become galvanizing.

Night after night, McCaffery’s toughness and smarts are on display. And his shot is coming along.

He pumped in 11 points Tuesday, breaking a string of 16 straight single-digit scoring games, and added seven assists with no turnovers in 38:19 of court time.

His cold-blooded 3 that gave Iowa a 49-41 lead with 15:09 left looked like it could be a dagger, but Michigan State didn’t wilt. In fact, the game got even more physical from there.

After ward, McCaffery showed why he is becoming a fan favorite with his response to a question about the game's physical nature. After taking a 55-53 lead, Iowa was called for 11 fouls in the final 8:35 to Michigan State's three.

“Definitely added physicality up here,” he said. “But you’ve got to play through it. No team in the history of basketball has come into the Breslin Center and got a good whistle.

“You need to just toughen up, don’t talk about it, don’t complain and just play. I think we did that for most of the game. I think we fought. I thought for the most part, we were tough. We just needed a few more bounces to go our way.”

Great quote. And can’t argue with it.

For those railing on Joe Wieskamp, settle down.

The sophomore from Muscatine would love to be making more shots. Trust me, he’s more frustrated than you are. After he was removed for a rest with 13:45 to go and Iowa leading 51-46, he plopped down into his folding chair without acknowledging teammates who were trying to encourage him. That was an outward sign of his inner frustration.

After shooting 1-for-8 with four points in 34 minutes against the Spartans on Tuesday, Wieskamp is an unthinkable 6-for-27 in Iowa’s last three games, all of which happen to coincide with CJ Fredrick’s absence because of a sprained ankle.

Coach Fran McCaffery stated postgame he wasn’t upset with Wieskamp’s performance. He’s missing shots, and it’s uncharacteristic.

It looks to me he’s lost a little confidence, and who wouldn’t during a rough patch? But everyone should take a breath and see how Wieskamp responds at home (where he has been fantastic) and with Fredrick back in the lineup. The Hawkeyes’ next two games are at Carver-Hawkeye Arena (11 a.m. Saturday vs. Penn State and 8 p.m. Tuesday vs. Purdue).

“He kept playing 'D.' He kept getting on the glass. He’s a team guy,” Fran McCaffery said. “I feel bad that a couple of those open shots didn’t go in for him. Nobody feels worse than he does.”

Even when Fredrick is back, and he will be Saturday, Ryan Kriener’s role can’t get diminished.

Of the many players who stepped up in Fredrick’s absence, there was none more impressive than Kriener. We knew this was there, because we’ve seen it in 10-minute spurts over his four-year career. As the Spirit Lake native’s career winds down, he’s clearly playing his best basketball.

And, as every game adds more mileage to Garza and Wieskamp, in particular, Kriener’s still got relatively fresh legs. He's still only averaging 18.3 minutes a game. And he looks good.

Despite sitting nearly the final 16 minutes of the first half with foul trouble, Kriener finished with 18 points and seven rebounds Tuesday. He has good post moves, a sweet baby hook, the ability to hit the 3-point shot, gritty defense and toughness packed in a 6-10, 255-pound frame.

Maybe one of the most admirable qualities about Kriener is his determination. After the game, Kriener was lamenting the missed opportunity to steal one in the Breslin Center. It was his 3-pointer that gave Iowa a 42-32 lead early in the second half. Michigan State went on a 21-9 run over the next 6½ minutes to take a 53-51 advantage.

“The part that hurts the worst is that we had them (on the ropes) three times over the course of my career,” Kriener said, “and it’s the only team I haven’t beaten.”

For the record: Kriener wants another shot at Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament (he feels Iowa should’ve beaten the Hoosiers on Feb. 13) and another one at Michigan State. That is his dream bracket.

How big a deal will Fredrick’s return be?

It’s all but official that he’ll return against Penn State. He hasn’t been cleared, but that should be a formality. He’s antsy to get back out there.

We should all be realistic about what to expect. Even if Fredrick doesn’t score 16 points in his return, his presence will be important for so many reasons. He’s one of Iowa’s best defenders. He’s a marksman from 3-point range (46.7%). He is a good free-throw shooter. He can create his own shot … and make it. He frees up space for others. Every minute he plays is one that someone else can recharge.

“It just makes it easier on everybody on the team, but especially me,” Garza said. “When he can spread the court as much as he can, it makes it harder for teams to double so quickly.”

Fredrick’s return is significant. But Iowa players who stepped up in his absence — Kriener, Bakari Evelyn (40 points in his past four games), Cordell Pemsl (eight rebounds Tuesday) — need to maintain their recent level of intensity. If they do (and Garza doesn’t take a turn for the worse), this is a team with the makings for a Sweet 16 run in the NCAA Tournament.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.