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Iowa center Luka Garza explains why he keeps talking about "stepping into the ring" these days. It's an interesting analogy: Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Luka Garza is running the basketball court with his usual abandon this season.

He’s scoring from the 3-point arc and on the low block, rebounding, blocking shots, everything Iowa fans expect to see from the energetic sophomore.

No one’s talking about his cyst anymore. That was yesterday’s news. Somehow, Garza has moved past that September surgery and emerged as an even better player than a year ago.

“I just tried to play as hard as I could and play aggressive,” Garza said Wednesday after he scored 22 points in 21 minutes to lead the No. 15 Hawkeyes (5-0) past Alabama State.

“Every opponent that steps in the ring, they’re in our way.”

More: Iowa men's basketball team enters top 15 in three national rankings

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The Hawkeyes blitzed to a 68-37 halftime lead. Still, Garza found fault.

“Towards the end of the half defensively we had a couple of mishaps,” he said.

These quotes are all vintage Garza. And yet there’s something miraculous about the matter-of-factness of it all. On Sept. 7, the 6-foot-11 native of Washington, D.C., had a 9-pound cyst cut out of his abdomen. There were questions then about whether he’d play at all this season.

“I think we were all worried,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said Monday. “Whenever you’re in a situation like this, typically the doctor will give you best-case scenario, worst-case scenario and usually it’s somewhere in between.

“You’re obviously always hoping for best, and we got the best. Worst would have meant that he missed the season.”

This seems beyond the best for Garza, though. He is averaging 16.2 points per game on 64 percent shooting from the field heading into Tuesday’s 8 p.m. home game vs. Pitt (6-0) on ESPNU. Garza was named MVP of the 2K Classic tournament the Hawkeyes won in New York City two weeks ago when they beat Oregon and Connecticut.

Garza has made 20 of 23 free throws this season, another key reason Iowa is unbeaten.

Iowa is attempting 36 free throws per game to lead the nation. The Hawkeyes are making them at a 79 percent rate. It’s part of a concerted effort to get low-post players like Garza and forward Tyler Cook (26-for-36) involved in the offense. Opponents often resort to fouls rather than giving up easy baskets to the powerful duo.

“It’s not a huge shift in focus. We’ve always wanted to do that,” McCaffery said. “I just think we have some bigs that are really good and they draw fouls. And we have enough perimeter talent where those guys are able to put it on the deck.”

Garza is right in the middle of all of this. McCaffery said he’s not surprised.

“I knew if the surgery went well, whatever the time frame was to get him back the soonest, that’s what it would be because of the shape he was in and the kind of person that he is. And he just stayed right on schedule from the minute he got out of surgery,” McCaffery said.

“I saw how hard he worked and it would have been really disappointing for him to not be able to play. The fact that he’s healthy and the fact that he’s playing extremely well is really incredibly exciting for all of us, because it was obviously a major concern two months ago.”

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