Iowa freshman Luka Garza talks about his strong debut in the Hawkeyes' 95-62 win over Chicago State. Dargan Southard / The Press-Citizen
IOWA CITY, Ia. — The hype began to bubble inside the North Liberty Community Center, continually growing as Iowa headed overseas. Two quality exhibition performances only heightened the anticipation, which finally ended Friday night inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
After promising outings in the Prime Time League, during the Hawkeyes’ European summer trip and in warmup wins over William Jewell and Belmont Abbey, freshman Luka Garza further validated the preseason buildup, delivering a strong opening act in his official collegiate debut.
Although he, like many of his teammates, received an abbreviated workload as Iowa routed Chicago State, 95-62, in Friday’s season opener, the 6-foot-11 big man certainly maximized his 18 minutes to the fullest. In racking up a game-high 16 points on 6-for-6 shooting, Garza displayed why he was entrenched in the Hawkeye starting lineup from the opening tip.
Yes, it’s Chicago State — a lowly Western Athletic Conference squad that has just nine Division I victories over the last three seasons. But for an 18-year-old shouldering lofty expectations on a team with NCAA Tournament hopes, immediate productivity shouldn’t be devalued.
“It’s obviously tough just being a freshman in the first place and trying to take this all in,” said sophomore guard Jordan Bohannon, who, like Garza, was a primary contributor in his first year. “A lot to deal with when you’re a freshman, and Luka’s starting now from Day 1, which is something I didn’t even do.
“But he’s a very aggressive player — very smart player — and having those two characteristics is really huge for anyone being a first-year player. And that’s going to help him a lot in the long run.”
That aggressiveness was evident from the jump, as Garza poured in 10 points, grabbed all five of his rebounds and had all three of his blocks in the opening 20 minutes. After the break, the Iowa rookie converted at the rim, knocked down a pair of free throws and sank a nice mid-range jumper within the first four minutes of the second half, before checking out for good with 15:26 to go.
Iowa basketball coach Fran McCaffery discusses strong performances by the Hawkeyes' freshmen and Isaiah Moss in Iowa's 95-62 win over Chicago State. Dargan Southard / The Press-Citizen
The night’s only blemish — a 4-for-8 showing at the line, something Garza doesn’t foresee being a problem moving forward. Iowa coach Fran McCaffery agreed, adding that he expects the freshman to usually shoot around 80 percent from the charity stripe.
“It’s uncharacteristic of me to miss like that, so I don’t think it’s something (to worry about)," Garza said. “(McCaffery) didn’t bring it up because it’s something I don’t usually do. I’m always hitting them in practice, so you just sometimes have those kind of games where you miss a little bit.
“… But (the night overall) feels good — just been working hard — and it’s starting to pay off. Just going to continue to work hard and not miss too many free throws.”
Following the Hawkeyes’ European tour, where he averaged 22.5 points and 10.3 rebounds in four blowout Iowa wins, Garza’s profile began gaining steam on a national level from a number of high-profile college basketball pundits.
CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein pegged Garza as one of his 20 under-the-radar freshmen to watch and also put the Washington, D.C., native on his list of 68 things to look forward to in college basketball this season. Rivals recruiting analyst Corey Evans picked Garza as his preseason Big Ten freshman of the year, while ESPN’s Jay Bilas also recognized the 6-foot-11 center as one of the top first-year players in the country.
Having been thrusted into a significant role so quickly, Garza acknowledged that he already doesn’t feel like a normal freshman.
“My teammates have helped me so much in adjusting to the game,” Garza said, “And I think continuing to adjust to the college game and speed and athleticism and strength is something that’s going to help me. Since I got here, we’ve just been pushing each other so hard that it feels like I’ve been in college forever.
“You need those type of teammates who are going to help you be comfortable and work out your mistakes because those are obviously going to happen as a freshman. So being able to have a group of guys like we have, they’ve helped me adjust so much so that I feel a lot more comfortable than a regular freshman would.”
Added teammate Isaiah Moss: “Luka is very confident, and I like that about him. He’s very confident in himself, puts in a lot of work before and after practice. So that’s where that comes from.”
With such a quick turnaround — Iowa hosts Alabama State on Sunday — Garza won’t have much time to dwell on Friday’s productive start. But if you’re scoring at home, he’s on pace to shoot a measly 100 percent from the field for his Hawkeyes career.
“We’ll see if I can keep that going,” Garza said with a laugh.
Dargan Southard covers preps, recruiting, Iowa and UNI athletics for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, The Des Moines Register and HawkCentral.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.