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Iowa center Luka Garza compares his shooting to Ryan Kriener's, then explains why he's playing so much better the past four games Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa center Luka Garza has come back from his ankle injury a changed man.

He’s still the hard-charging emotional leader of the No. 24 Hawkeyes, but he’s combining that passion with a determination to not let his team lose. And they haven’t in the four games Garza has played since sitting out three.

Garza said Friday those three games were a “re-focusing point.” He has scored 62 points in 92 minutes since returning as Iowa (15-3, 4-3 Big Ten Conference) prepares to face Illinois (5-12, 1-5) at noon Sunday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The game will be shown on BTN.

“Not being out there gave me some more motivation,” said Garza, a 6-foot-11 sophomore from Washington, D.C. “I wanted to get out there and do as much as I could to help my team win. So once I did get out there, I was just trying to be as aggressive as I can. Especially when we don’t have Tyler (Cook), I know I have to step up. That means more shots for me. That means more driving and trying to draw fouls because that’s one of the things we miss without him, is getting to the free-throw line.”

Garza is 19-for-22 from the stripe in the past four games. He is coming off a 22-point, 12-rebound performance in a victory Wednesday at Penn State. He has been the Hawkeyes’ most important player during its four-game win streak, as the team adjusts to life without power forward Cook, another victim of a sprained ankle.

“He plays with that energy level all the time,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said of Garza.

Last year, Garza had his finest moment in an overtime victory at Illinois. He scored 17 of his 19 points after intermission and led Iowa back from a 20-point deficit to its only Big Ten road win of the season. He added 11 rebounds. It was a turning point.

“It was a good game for me to kind of come into my own and start playing as confident as I should have been playing the whole season. It’s definitely one of those games I look back on and I’m proud of myself,” Garza said.

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Iowa coach Fran McCaffery on the impact Luka Garza and Ryan Kriener are having during his team's four-game winning streak Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

Garza displays his enthusiasm for basketball more than any other Hawkeye. His teammates seem to rally around that. He said it was the way he was taught to play the game on the East Coast. Plus, he admired the way NBA great Kevin Garnett would do the same thing.

“It’s a great feeling right there when you know your teammates believe in you and everyone’s riled up. That’s when we know we’re going to win,” Garza said.

“At some points, I can’t control it. I’m just in the moment,” Garza added, pointing to a technical foul he was assessed in the Penn State game after being a little too loud, and profane, after making a basket.

Garza said he’s learned from that “stupid mistake.” He also said he doesn’t feel the need to temper his exuberance.

“If I get a wide-open layup, I’m not going to run around like King Kong. At different key moments when I’m feeling it, I’m just going to let my emotions ride,” Garza said.

His teammates are happy to come along for that ride.

Cook inches closer to playing

Cook has missed Iowa’s last two road games, first with a sore right knee against Northwestern, then with the sprained left ankle against Penn State. He suffered the latter injury late in a home win over Ohio State last Saturday.

Cook warmed up before the Penn State game and was close to being ready to play, McCaffery said.

“He didn’t have the explosion,” McCaffery said of the junior who leads his team in scoring (17.1 points per game) and rebounding (8.3).

Cook worked out on his own Thursday and reported that he felt good, McCaffery said. He was set to practice a little Friday and will be a game-time decision Sunday.

“I feel a lot better than I did in the last one,” McCaffery said when asked about Cook’s availability.

Illinois coming off a stunning win

The Illini are 0-9 in games not played in Champaign. This has been a trying second season for coach Brad Underwood.

But they did just demolish a quality Minnesota team 95-68 on Wednesday to earn their first Big Ten win of the season. Freshmen Ayo Dosunmu and Giorgi Bezhanishvili combined for 43 points in that one.

McCaffery sees a dangerous team that may be starting to find its rhythm.

“You could see it coming. Yeah, their record was sub-.500, but they were in every game. They battled every game. And you knew they were going to put it all together at some point,” McCaffery said of Illinois. “It's one of those things you always hope it's not against you.”

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