After a trying Hawkeye winter, Luka Garza pushes himself like never before

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — It’s a good thing February is the shortest month on the calendar, because Luka Garza had had his fill of it last winter.

The freshman center on Iowa’s basketball team watched in helpless silence as loss followed loss, six in a row at one point. An ace student, Garza even did the unthinkable: He dropped a class that he’ll need for his economics major.

“I wasn’t used to being on the road. Especially with all the losing and frustration, the last thing I wanted to do when I got back is start doing homework,” Garza said Tuesday, sweat dripping from his forehead after Iowa’s last team workout of the summer session. “I wanted to watch film. I wanted to talk with somebody about how I was playing or how I could improve. I didn’t have the time for it.”

Iowa center Luka Garza had a cathartic dunk against Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament to end February. But that month also included six consecutive losses and some serious soul-searching for the freshman. Now, "I’m not even for a second thinking about rest until we succeed or we reach our goals,” he says.

Garza’s offseason practices started the day after the Hawkeyes finished a 14-19 campaign with a hard-fought loss to Michigan on March 1. This had been the winter of their discombobulation, and Garza couldn’t let himself relax after all the high expectations for his first college team had been laid low.

Garza replaced macroeconomics with a less demanding course, but one that doesn’t count toward his major. To make up for that, he took two challenging classes — earth science and statistics — this summer. He’ll tackle macroeconomics again in the fall. He expects to have no problem with it this time.

Nor does Garza expect his Hawkeye team to be the defensive sieve it often was last year. He is heartened by the enthusiasm he’s seeing in the weight room, with the way his teammates are pushing each other in practice and getting on each other when they perceive the effort is falling short. And with the emphasis on being better on the defensive end.

But optimism in August is nothing new for any basketball team. Doubting Hawkeye fans will need to be convinced that something has really changed. Garza is aware.

“There was a lot of hype around us last year, and we didn’t produce,” he said. “So we understand the skepticism. But we’re not trying to pay attention to that. We have the blinders on.”

Garza's critique: '... A shell of myself'

Garza had a strong debut season for Iowa. The 6-foot-11 native of Washington, D.C., was third on the team in scoring at 12.1 points per game. He was second in rebounds at 6.4. He led the Hawkeyes with 32 blocked shots.

It all came together for Garza after his 19-point effort in an overtime win at Illinois. He reached double figures in scoring in 11 of the final 14 games and never had fewer than eight. His effort was consistent, as was his production.

He has spent the months since watching film of himself. With his coaches. With his parents, both former basketball players. With anyone he could find.

“There were some games where I was looking like a shell of myself,” Garza concluded. “There were other games where I was proud of what I was doing. But it didn’t matter if we lost.”

Garza has spent his time working on his jump shot. He seemed to surprise opponents by making 34.8 percent of his 3-pointers last season, but he finds that figure disappointing. It should be above 40 percent, Garza reasons. And he wants to attempt far more than just 46 of them. There were seven games in which Garza didn’t launch a single shot from beyond the arc, he noted, shaking his head.

“I was passing up open looks,” he said. “That’s not like me.”

Garza is working on being fleeter, always a struggle for the big man. He is jumping rope, running ladders, doing box jumps. It’s all intended to make him a better defender.

“I’ll always run the floor well, but I think there’s little moments on defense where I could be quicker in my cuts and my movements,” Garza said. “I need to get to certain spaces quicker, like when I’m showing (on a screen) and have to get back. Or on closeouts.”

Summer weightlifting sessions have intensified noticeably from last summer, Garza said. He is up 10 pounds, to 245. In practices, he has been testing himself against muscular junior forward Tyler Cook. There is progress there, Garza is happy to note. That development should serve him well in his second go-around against Big Ten competition.

“I’m not always going to be the strongest guy in the post,” Garza said. “I’m trying to outsmart (an opponent) with a fake or some pivot. That’s what I’ll need to do to get by.”

Teaming up with Tyler Cook again: 'We've been pushing each other'

Garza considers himself a close friend of Cook’s. He was supportive when Iowa’s leading scorer and rebounder took a long look at the NBA Draft this spring. It would have been exciting to have a buddy make it to the Association.

But Garza was also thrilled when Cook decided to return to Iowa City.

“We’re going to be really, really tough down there, in the paint, next year,” Garza promised.

“We’ve been pushing each other when we get in the gym, playing one-on-one. We know what we can do. We have the potential because there were moments last year where we were kind of unstoppable.”

Cook also is working to extend the range on his jump shot, Garza observed. That effort is paying off, he said. When paired on the same team in pickup games, Garza said he and Cook would test out some high-low looks. They can be interchangeable in those situations now.

Cook and Garza share an admiration of NBA star LeBron James.

“In my opinion, he’s the greatest player who’s ever played,” Garza said quietly, quickly looking away as if he’s accustomed to facing arguments over that point.

“So there’s no reason for me to relax if he’s not relaxing. He’s in the gym. He’s working out. Every year, he brings out a different dimension of his game. Those guys are who I aspire to be like, in terms of their mentality.”

What downtime? 'I'm just so motivated to make myself better for this season'

That attitude was tested like never before for Garza last year. For the first time, he had to confront failure. His reaction to it was not ideal, he acknowledged.

“Sometimes, I’d just stop talking. I’d just be quiet. Even after games, my dad (Frank) would be talking and I could listen but I couldn’t say anything,” Garza said. “In those moments is when I have to be more vocal and more energetic and not just keep getting pounded down into the ground.

“I’d never faced that much adversity to try and just win a game, any game. I was just trying not to get too down on myself.”

Garza was proud to note that he’s seeing progress on that front this summer. On Tuesday, he said he missed his first three shots in a scrimmage. During games last year, that was an outcome that would have gnawed at him. Instead, he said he didn’t miss another shot all afternoon.

“I’m just so motivated to make myself better for this season that I’m not even for a second thinking about rest until we succeed or we reach our goals,” said Garza, who, like the rest of the Hawkeyes, leaves Friday for a summer break.

Garza’s plans include a trip to California with his father to visit his grandfather. There, he will continue his workout regimen. Basketball appears to be his only hobby.

“I’m like addicted. Whatever I’m doing every single day, I’m going to touch a basketball, watch basketball, do something with basketball,” Garza said.

“I never try to get to comfortable or too relaxed with anything, because there’s always something I need to improve.”