'Desperate to succeed': How Iowa's Luka Garza became one of college basketball's top stars
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Luka Garza pushed himself so hard last summer that no one can push him around this winter.
A trip to Bosnia wasn’t about admiring the Alps and visiting family. It involved renting out a gym, working out three times each day, getting into a defensive stance with a brick in each hand and sliding back and forth through the lane until he sometimes vomited.
In August, it was 10 days in Vallejo, California, which offers breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean. Garza was in the gym three times a day there, working out with his grandfather and his father, expanding his offensive repertoire.
Garza has become one of the surprise stories of the college basketball season, the often-bloodied face of an Iowa team that is ranked 18th nationally and starting to become locally beloved. The work he put in last summer has paid off to the tune of 23 points and 10.4 rebounds per game.
Garza is the leading candidate for Big Ten player of the year and is in the conversation for national player of the year with a month left in the regular season.
And the 6-foot-11 junior center may be the only one who saw this transformation coming.
“He’s in one of those zones right now where he can’t be defended. He’s really unstoppable,” said former Iowa center and current Big Ten Network analyst Jess Settles.
“You keep thinking that there’s going to be this falloff, and it’s just not happening. It’s surprising when he doesn’t get 25 points in a game, and that’s pretty unprecedented.”
Next up for Iowa (15-6, 6-4 Big Ten Conference) is a soldout home game at noon CST Sunday against No. 19 Illinois (16-5, 8-2).
Garza, a native of Washington, D.C., has gotten by because of his inner drive. It’s how he earned 26 starts as a freshman, when he averaged 12.1 points per game. It’s what enabled him to play a full sophomore season, averaging 13.1 points, despite having a 9-pound cyst pulled from his abdomen a month before practices began.
But how he’s putting up the numbers he is this year is mystifying those who follow basketball the closest.
“He’s a lot more mobile than I gave him credit for,” ESPN’s Jay Bilas said. “He’s a star, and right now, along with maybe (Dayton’s) Obi Toppin and (Seton Hall’s) Myles Powell, he’s the player of the year. Because they’re the only ones who have done it every game.”
Garza credits those arduous offseason workouts for much of what he’s doing. In Sarajevo, in his mother Sejla’s homeland, he worked with his uncle and cousin, Teoman and Denis Alibegovic. Garza’s father, Frank, a former college player at Idaho, designed the two-hour training sessions, one in the morning and one in the evening, with 90 minutes of weightlifting in the afternoon.
It was the first time Garza had ventured to Europe to work on his game. Frank said the mornings were devoted to offense, from 3-point shooting to post moves. The evenings were spent on defense and rebounding. That’s where the bricks would come into play. Or Garza would take a punching bag off its hook and press it to his midsection, bending his legs and sliding back and forth as fast as he could for 90 seconds.
“If you weren’t throwing up, you weren’t working hard enough,” Frank Garza said. “You have to go to depths of conditioning. You have to teach your body to go beyond.”
In Vallejo, where Luka’s grandfather James Halm is an assistant basketball coach at California State-Maritime, there was a similar regimen. The head coach at Cal Maritime, Brendan Rooney, even studied film of Garza from past seasons and offered specialty training, with an emphasis on getting the 260-pound Hawkeye to open his hips better on defense.
“I got stronger. Being able to hold people down low and pin people and get deep post position,” Garza said. “Being able to have a low base and to hold that low base. Because I think last year I’d make similar moves but I’d get knocked off my spot a couple of times. I wouldn’t be able to finish.”
“He was always the most enthusiastic person in any space. He finds the positive in everything and he just had this energy and spirit to him that lifted everyone else up.”
— Lynn Levinson, Garza’s high school adviser
Garza grew up surrounded by basketball excellence.
His mother played professionally in Europe. Halm was a 6-8 post player at Hawaii before beginning a coaching career that is approaching its fifth decade. Teoman Alibegovic was a 6-9 center who averaged 18.1 points per game in his final season at Oregon State in 1990-91 before a 13-year pro career in Europe. Teoman’s oldest two sons, Mirza and Amar, are on pro teams in Italy. Denis is hoping to play college ball in America.
“He didn’t have a chance to be whiny in that house,” Teoman Alibegovic said of his nephew. “He understood there is no success without sacrifice. He knew from the get-go, when he was a little clumsy growing up, that he had to overcome that with stubbornness. He would never give up.”
When it came time to choose a high school in the D.C. area, Garza eschewed the traditional sports powers and landed on Maret, a private K-12 institution with small class sizes and a mission of preparing students for college. Garza wanted to challenge himself academically. It was not an easy path.
“In the beginning, he struggled,” said Lynn Levinson, who taught Garza ninth-grade history and was his academic adviser for 10th through 12th grade. “But just as he does on the basketball court, he committed himself so wholeheartedly to developing his skills, just strengthening his contributions in class, working on his writing and his presentations. He met with me all the time and he just was really desperate to succeed as a student here.”
Garza was getting C’s and D’s as a freshman. By his junior and senior year, it was mostly A’s with a few B’s, Levinson recalled.
Marjo Talbott, the head of Maret School, said Garza asked to meet with her after his sophomore year about the dynamics of the basketball team for which he starred.
“To ensure that the culture of the team was about sportsmanship and really providing opportunities for each student to grow. It was impressive,” Talbott said.
“He’s an authentic person and there’s no guile with him. It’s what you see is what you get.”
Garza visits Maret whenever he’s back home, Levinson said. Everyone at the school has been following his basketball success avidly this season.
Levinson still recalls the speech Garza made at the Senior Dinner for his class of 80 students. Everyone expected that the jock would talk about basketball.
“He got up there and he talked about how the teachers believed in him here, how much he grew academically, how he is so intellectually curious and prospering because of his time at Maret,” Levinson said. “He focused exclusively on academics, didn’t even mention sports.”
Garza said his time at Maret was formative. It showed him what hard work could lead to, and not just in sports.
“That place means a lot to me,” he said. “It was very dear to my heart and kind of the reason I am who I am today.”
“His energy level is what’s infectious. Because when the big fella’s sprinting and attacking the glass at both ends and making plays and doesn’t take a possession off — it seems like he never gets tired – that’s going to impact everybody else.”
— Iowa basketball coach Fran McCaffery
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery saw Garza play for the first time in his sophomore year at Maret. The Hawkeyes became the first major-conference college team to offer him a scholarship. That meant something to Garza, who chose Iowa and stuck with that commitment even when other big schools started paying attention.
Garza was a solid Big Ten Conference player from the beginning.
He was honorable mention all-conference as a sophomore and viewed as an important building block entering his junior year for a Hawkeye team suddenly without power forward Tyler Cook (who left a year early to pursue a pro career), shooting guard Isaiah Moss (who transferred to Kansas) and point guard Jordan Bohannon (out for most the season after hip surgery).
But Hawkeye teammates noticed Garza’s desire to be much more than that.
“His leadership is probably the main thing that stands out to me,” said sophomore guard Joe Wieskamp, who was named preseason all-Big Ten. “He kind of took that role on at the end of last spring and the summer … keeping everyone calm out there.”
Entering the season, expectations were low for the Hawkeyes, who were picked to finish eighth in the Big Ten in a media poll. Garza was aiming much higher. He came back leaner and stronger and with a new arsenal of moves.
Garza was a 31.4% shooter from the 3-point arc in his first two seasons. He’s at 37.3% now, despite the distance of that shot increasing from 20 feet, 9 inches to 22-1 ¾.
Garza, who is shooting 54.6% overall from the floor, can face up opponents and score. His uncle helped him develop a running hook shot. Frank Garza said his son has moves that he hasn’t even shown yet, waiting for the right moment to throw them at unsuspecting defenders.
“He plays harder than any post player that he goes up against. He’s stronger than any post player that goes up against, and he’s much more skilled than any post player that he goes up against,” Settles said of Garza.
“What’s really taken him to the next level is his ability to face people up and also shoot the 3. So not only does he have all the moves around the basket, he’s hitting four or five jump shots a game now. And that’s just devastating if you’re a ‘5’ man who’s just worried about handling him on the post, rebounding, and then you’ve got to step out with him and he’s hitting shots like that. It really messes with your psyche when you’re a post player.”
Frank Garza is one observer who is not surprised by the player his son has become. He said this all would have been possible last season if Luka hadn’t had September surgery to remove the cyst and a sprained ankle in December.
Garza did have a stretch of seven Big Ten games in which he averaged 19.7 points last winter. He got buzz for that. Then in his next four games, he scored a total of 16 points.
“I can’t let that stuff get to me,” Garza said this season after he started getting national acclaim. “One of my focuses going into the offseason was to be mentally ready.”
“He knows he’s going to get double-teamed. He’s very poised when the double comes. They’re getting him on the move more often. What he does is dribble out and pass out of it. He’s not stunned by a double-team. He processes it. It demonstrates his maturity that when the double comes, he makes the right play.”
— ESPN analyst Jay Bilas
Garza has scored in double digits in all but one game this season. That was a nine-point effort in a loss to San Diego State.
He has combined that reliability with durability, averaging 31 minutes per game, despite increasing defensive attention.
Against Texas Tech on Thanksgiving, Garza took a shot to his lip that left his face covered in blood. He got four stitches. He returned to score 21 points in a big Iowa win.
At Iowa State in December, Garza was hit so hard that one of his front teeth was displaced. That didn’t keep him out of that Hawkeye victory either.
Nebraska and Wisconsin are the Big Ten teams that have tried to muscle Garza the heaviest. They even threw triple-teams at him at times. In both games, Garza collected six offensive rebounds, determined to find ways to get shots up.
Michigan tried to beat Garza by beating on him. The Wolverines fouled him 11 times in a December victory at home in which Garza scored 44 points. In the rematch in Iowa City this month, Garza drew 12 fouls. He scored 33 points. Iowa won that time.
“He was robotic in the past,” Alibegovic said in a phone interview from his home in Italy, where he watches his nephew every chance he gets. “Take a look at his eyes. He is concentrating now. He doesn’t, even for a second, let the target out of his sight. He can have one guy, two guys, three guys hanging on him. They can be punching him in the face. He’ll keep looking at the bucket and first he’s going to score. Then he’s going to say, ‘Ow, it hurts.’ Look at how many soft players you have. Everybody cries to the ref. He doesn’t.”
Garza had 21 points and 13 rebounds in a Jan. 10 home win over Maryland, even though he woke up that day with a 101-degree fever after spending the previous day throwing up.
“When I have the ball, I don’t feel anybody can really guard me,” Garza said. “That’s just a confidence thing going into every game.”
"He plays very hard, and it's in his DNA. But the thing that I love about it is there's a certain joy that he plays with. You can just see it. And I imagine if you're there, you can kind of feel it. Luka loves the game and it just looks like it when I watch him play. To me, that's critical."
— James Halm, Luka Garza's grandfather
With all the numbers Garza is putting up, you would think he’d be getting plenty of NBA attention.
Minnesota center Daniel Oturu and Maryland big man Jalen Smith are both considered first-round picks in the most recent mock draft at NBADraft.net. Garza’s name does not appear in either round. There are questions about how well his game will translate to that level, whether he’d be able to defend agile post players.
But Bilas, who has a respected eye for talent, believes Garza will make it to the league.
“He’ll play in the NBA because he can shoot it and step away, and he’s got a big body and he can rebound,” Bilas said. “The NBA’s always looking for stars, but you can make a lot of money as a role player.”
Garza said he hasn’t given the NBA any thought. His focus is on winning a Big Ten championship and getting the Hawkeyes back to the NCAA Tournament, where they were bounced in the second round a year ago.
Frank Garza said the family’s goal is even higher, one that hints at what Luka’s NBA decision will be later this year.
“We came here to win a national championship,” Frank said. “It’s always been my belief, marrow deep, that we can bring a national championship home. We believe you can do it at Iowa. You can do it with Fran. I’m expecting we’re on that path.”
Settles would like to see Garza return to Iowa and take a shot at becoming the school’s all-time leading scorer. Roy Marble currently holds that mark with 2,116 points. Garza is already at 1,301.
Iowa hasn’t had a consensus first-team all-American since Chuck Darling in 1952. Garza is in line to be the next.
Settles called Garza the most impactful Hawkeye since Andre Woolridge in 1997. Before he’s done, Garza could have an argument as the best ever.
“I always play with emotion. That’s what basketball does for me, is allow me to show who I am,” Garza said.
“It doesn’t really matter who’s lined up in front of me. I’m just going to go as hard as I can. I play hard if I’m in the YMCA, if I’m in L.A. Fitness, as hard as I do in the Big Ten. I don’t really take any moment on the court for granted because you never know what’s going to be your last.”
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.
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