Leistikow: Built in D.C., Iowa's Luka Garza returns home for Maryland matchup rich with drama

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Iowa all-American center Luka Garza returned to college to settle some unfinished business: Taking the Hawkeyes to their first Final Four in 41 years.

A significant slice on Garza’s unsettled-business journey occurs in a two-hour window Thursday night, when the seventh-ranked Hawkeyes visit Maryland in a Big Ten Conference collision.

Garza is 0-for-2 against the Terrapins at the XFINITY Center in College Park, a Metro ride on the Green Line away from where he played high school basketball at the private Maret School in Washington, D.C.

On both previous trips, the results have been humbling.

“I haven't been able to win at Maryland,” Garza said this week. “And that’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”

Being a native of the DMV — the acronym for the metropolitan Washington area, which includes D.C. and populous swaths of Maryland and Virginia — is special to Garza and his tight-knit family, which still lives in northern Virginia.

The nation’s capital represents the country’s scrappy, underdog origins. That fits Garza’s story perfectly. He’s never had elite natural gifts to wow talent evaluators, but his tireless work ethic and evolution has made him a favorite to be the college game’s national player of the year. At an imposing 6-foot-11 and 265 pounds, Garza continues to dominate opponents with a dizzying array of interior post moves, 48.7% accuracy from 3-point range … all powered by a relentless motor.

Luka Garza leads major-college players by a wide margin in scoring average, at 27.5 points entering his homecoming game Thursday at Maryland.

Nothing was handed to Garza. He’s fought for and earned everything that’s come his way.

“That’s what D.C. represents to us,” his father, Frank, said. “It’s the American dream.”

When Garza was about 11 years old, his father arranged him a tryout with 6th Man Sports, a skills-development program coached by Byron Mouton in Maryland’s Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties. Mouton was a well-known starting guard on Maryland’s 2002 NCAA championship team.

At the tryout, Mouton put Garza through a skills test that included the famed Mikan Drill (named after Minneapolis Lakers' legend George Mikan). After Garza aced the drill (no surprise, given it's one he practiced constantly), an impressed Mouton told him, “Welcome to the team.”

“He was a big impact on my life,” Garza said of Mouton, who amassed 1,473 points in his college career. “I enjoyed learning from him and playing for him.”

Luka was the slowest player by a wide margin on Mouton's AAU team, but his father helped him understand that through effort, fundamentals and conditioning, he could still be one of the first players up and down the floor on each possession. Garza’s awkward, plodding style was one of the reasons many Division I programs shied away from him despite his prolific scoring and impressive size.

As fate would have it, Iowa’s Fran McCaffery saw Garza as a high school sophomore, playing against son, Connor. McCaffery liked the raw skills and work ethic and felt comfortable extending Garza his first major scholarship offer.

The rest, as they say, was history.

“We offered him earlier than we normally offer people,” said McCaffery, who figured offers from other schools would overwhelmingly follow.

They did. But that early relationship with Garza, his family and Maret coach Chuck Driesell paid off when the likes of Indiana, Louisville and local school Georgetown came calling.

If the Driesell name sounds familiar, it should. "Lefty" Driesell, who coached Maryland to 348 wins over 17 years, is Chuck’s father. But Mark Turgeon, in his 10th year at Maryland, passed on Garza.

Maryland coach Mark Turgeon passed on offering a local high school star several years ago. That star? Iowa's Luka Garza. Garza will play his hometown team on Thursday.

The Terrapins weren’t interested in the 2017 Gatorade Player of the Year in Washington D.C., who put up gigantic numbers in a region of the country known for churning out elite basketball talent. Just think if Iowa had completely ignored a highly productive player from, say, Cedar Rapids and he became a first-team all-American at Purdue. And imagine if that player was returning to play this week at Carver-Hawkeye Arena for the last time. And he’d never won there.

Even if Garza isn’t saying there’s extra motivation for Thursday’s game … there’s extra motivation. 

“I definitely would have liked to be more heavily recruited by Maryland,” Garza offered. “But that’s just the way it is.”

In each of Garza’s first two games as a Hawkeye in the DMV, he’s gotten into early foul trouble — an abnormal occurrence in a historic Iowa career that has him No. 2 on the school's scoring list at 1,861 points with Roy Marble (2,116) in his sights.

As a freshman in 2018, he got a second foul before the under-12 timeout in the first half and got a third in the first 75 seconds of the second half. He finished with six points in 16 minutes, and McCaffery was ejected in a 91-73 Iowa loss.

As a junior in 2020, he picked up a second foul just 4:46 into the game and spent much of the contest on the bench. Garza scored 21 points in 24 minutes in an 82-72 Iowa loss.

“I’m going to try to be smart this time,” said Garza, who leads major-college players with a scoring average of 27.5 points a game. “I feel like I’ve gotten some chippy ones in the last couple contests. I’ll definitely do whatever it takes (Thursday) to keep myself on the floor as long as I can.”

Regardless of the outcome, this Maryland trip is guaranteed to be different than Garza’s first two. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, no fans — not even family members — are allowed to attend the meeting between Iowa (9-2, 3-1 Big Ten Conference) and Maryland (6-5, 1-4). That means Frank, mother Sejla and younger sister Tesa (a student at George Mason University) won’t get to make the short commute across the Potomac River to the XFINITY Center.

“We’ve lost twice here. It hurts,” Frank Garza said. “… Third time’s a charm. Not that I’m predicting anything.”

Luka Garza hoped he would have the opportunity to see his family on the trip, maybe hug his mom for the first time in a long time. But he wasn’t sure that could happen given strict COVID-19 protocols. Either way, he knows his family will be watching Thursday’s ESPN2 broadcast (6 p.m. Central time). And he acknowledged why this fan-less homecoming is still special to him.

Luka Garza looks to score against Maryland's Jalen Smith (a nearby Baltimore native) during last year's 82-72 Iowa loss in College Park. Garza is 0-2 at Maryland with an average margin of defeat of 14.0 points.

“Growing up in the DMV just kind of made me into the basketball player I am,” Garza said. “When I first entered college, I had so much confidence. I knew I was prepared for this. I’ve been playing against the best players in high school basketball. There’s no better high school basketball area than D.C., Maryland and Virginia.”

Frank Garza is thankful that Fran McCaffery saw the intangibles in his son. And now, one last time, Luka returns home for a third shot at beating the Terps in their building.

“I always wanted Luka to be a statesman of D.C., and I think he is,” his father said. “I think he represents those qualities, of the nation’s character and struggle.”

And how’s this for Garza’s career coming full circle in the DMV?

The date of Garza’s first trip to Maryland as a Hawkeye was Jan. 7, 2018. He was a young freshman, spending most of his fifth Big Ten Conference game in foul trouble. That was one of Iowa’s most jarring losses — with two technical fouls being called on McCaffery — on the path to a difficult 14-19 season.

Exactly three years to the day, Garza returns to Maryland as the best player in the country for a top-10 team.

What a fitting and happy homecoming it would be if Garza left a final mark on the nation’s capital with a resounding Hawkeye victory.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.