Leistikow: An interview with Iowa's Luka Garza on postseason awards and extending his range to 30 feet

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

The college basketball season stopped March 12, but Luka Garza didn’t.

Less than 48 hours after drifting around downtown Indianapolis in stunned disbelief that the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments had been canceled, the all-American Iowa big man was back in his native Washington, D.C., area, grinding through two-a-day workouts designed by his father, Frank, in any gymnasium or empty warehouse they could find.

In the days and weeks to come, Frank Garza would tweet video updates of his son’s exploits. In one clip, 6-foot-11 Luka drains 10 consecutive “pick-and-pop” 3-pointers from 25 to 30 feet. In another, he’s using right and left hands to convert hook shots made famous by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Much like his junior season at Iowa, statistically the best by any player in the program’s 120-year history, Garza just kept producing.

Normally, Garza would take at least a week off after the end of a basketball season. And given the physical pounding he took while playing almost every minute of grueling Big Ten Conference games, a break would have seemed sensible. But Garza, in an extended interview with the Des Moines Register, says he's been driven by a lack of closure after the COVID-19 pandemic brought an abrupt end to the Hawkeyes’ 20-11 season. He thinks the Big Ten Tournament bracket set up beautifully for the fifth-seeded Hawkeyes. He thinks this was a Sweet 16 team, at least, in the NCAA Tournament that never was.

“I felt really confident about our path to the Big Ten championship,” Garza says, opining that Iowa had a favorable first matchup against Minnesota, then would have beaten No. 4 seed Illinois the next day and had already proven it was better than top seed Wisconsin. “It adds fuel to our fire. It just adds motivation for the guys, that you can’t take any moment for granted after experiencing it all being taken away from you.”

The work has continued and will continue. Deeper range is a high priority, to further extend defenses. In one recent workout, Garza made 22 of 25 3-pointers from 25 feet (baseline) to 30 feet (top of key). And then there’s that hook shot we haven't seen in games yet.

"The hook is something I’ve worked on my entire life. It’s always been there, I just haven’t really used it as much as I can," Garza says. "The way teams are guarding me, I’m going to have to find different ways to score.”

The world has changed at lot in 3 weeks.

In recent days, that’s meant Garza — who’s living in his parents’ apartment in population-packed Arlington, Virginia — no longer has access to a basketball court. Even the nets on hoops at local parks have been tied off to deter gatherers, as Virginia is one of many states to issue stay-at-home orders punishable by law.

But finally, some forced rest for Garza, as he resumed online classes this week.

"He spent the whole year getting beat up in the Big Ten. He needs some time off," Frank Garza says. "There’s no better time to take a little time. He’s still going to do weights, upper body, jump rope. But we’re going to take it easy.”

A slight break, by Garza standards, has also meant a time for reflection.

Recently, he got a text from Iowa coach Fran McCaffery. With more time on his hands than usual, Garza began to thumb through past texts, and he found one from late May. In reply to Garza wishing his coach a happy birthday, McCaffery told Garza that he would be the Big Ten’s player of the year.

One of Luka Garza's favorite games of his historic 2019-20 season that was cut short was at home against Illinois, on Super Bowl Sunday. Garza hit four 3-pointers that day and scored 25 points in a 72-65 Hawkeye win.

An outlandish thought then to the outside world, but McCaffery saw the rigorous offseason work that Garza was putting in.

Garza had forgotten that prophetic prediction until recently, when he was named one of five consensus first-team all-Americans — and the first in Iowa’s program since Chuck Darling in 1952.

“I wasn’t sure I could be a high-major basketball player,” Garza says. “To be a consensus all-American, I obviously will remember it forever.

“I am thankful I am at the University of Iowa. I don’t think if I was at any other program it would have happened. If I didn’t come here to play for Coach, I don’t think my career would have went this way.”

The one thing Garza couldn’t stop thinking about?

The final play of Iowa’s season. Down two at Illinois, Garza caught an inbounds pass with 1 second to go and had his quick-release shot blocked by Kofi Cockburn. Whether that 78-76 loss is Garza's last game is a Hawkeye is not something he or Frank is ready to publicly address; there is no hurry to make pro decisions with the NBA and sports world at a standstill.

But Garza had been racking his brain about what he could’ve done differently to change that Illinois finish.

“Are you kidding me?” Frank interjects. “I couldn’t get it out his mind.”

To help Luka move past it, they worked on alternative options. Frank says unequivocally that shot won’t get blocked again.

“I still to this day don’t think I had enough time for a dribble,” Garza says. “In retrospect, I think I maybe could have turned the other way and tried a fade-away jumper.”

That’s Garza. Always thinking about ways to improve. His cerebral side helped him become unstoppable, even as teams game-planned to stop him. Garza scored at least 20 points in Iowa’s final 16 games, the first Big Ten player to do so since Ohio State’s Dennis Hopson in 1987.

Even with a season cut short, Garza’s 740 points are a single-season school record. That total ranks 10th in Big Ten history. With just 46 more points, he would have moved to sixth. The top five are a who's-who in Big Ten history: Purdue’s Glenn Robinson (1,030 in 1993-94), Hopson (958 in 1986-87), Michigan’s Glen Rice (949 in 1988-89), Purdue’s Carsen Edwards (874 in 2018-19) and Michigan State’s Scott Skiles (850 in 1985-86).

Ah, what could have been.

Awards season provides one more angle of reflection, appreciation.

Garza is the first Hawkeye to be named men's national player of the year; multiple outlets bestowed that honor, including The Sporting News and ESPN. But perhaps the biggest reactions have come from the awards he didn’t win. After Dayton’s Obi Toppin was named The Associated Press player of the year (getting 34 votes to Garza's 24), a barrage of social-media outrage was launched from Hawkeye fans and past and current teammates.

Tyler Cook: “Ridiculous to say the least.”

Connor McCaffery: “LOL … joke.”

Jordan Bohannon: “This gotta be fake.”

“It was awesome to see, not only my teammates and the fans — how crazy Twitter went,” said Garza, who also fell short in Friday's Naismith Trophy announcement but is holding out hope he can be named the Wooden Award winner on Tuesday. “In the moment I was a little upset but like I said, it’s a blessing to be in the conversation.”

What will be remembered most about the best season by a Hawkeye?

Putting up 44 points at Michigan and 38 at Indiana aren’t on the list for the Garzas, because those outbursts came in losses. Frank Garza goes back to a November game  in Las Vegas, when his son’s lip was split open and required stitches. Any pain-killers would have meant Garza couldn’t continue in the game; so he told doctors to stitch him up … and returned to the floor for a 72-62 win against the reigning NCAA runners-up.

“When I look back at some of my favorite games — Illinois at home (25 points in 72-65 win), Michigan at home (33 points in 90-83 win),” Garza says. “Games where as a team we were so strong and beat really, really good teams.

“The main thing I’m going to take away from this season, despite all the accomplishments, is the relationships I’ve had and the memories that will last a lifetime with this group. The people on this team made it so much. I love my teammates.”

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.