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Does Luka Garza consider himself the best college basketball player in the nation? Hear how Iowa's junior center answers that and more: Hawk Central

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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Individual honors aren’t at the top of Luka Garza’s mind these days.

Iowa’s junior center seems as surprised as anyone to find himself in the college basketball limelight, on the short list for every national player of the year award.

“I kind of don’t have an opinion on that right now,” Garza said Tuesday when asked whether he thinks he’s the nation’s best player.

“If I win that, it would be a dream come true, something that I never imagined myself being in a position to do. … If you would have asked me last year, or four years ago, if I saw myself even in the conversation I would have just told you you were crazy. It’s a blessing to be able to be in that conversation. I’m excited to keep going and keep building up my chance to win that award.”

Garza’s best chance to win awards named after the likes of John Wooden, Oscar Robertson and James Naismith is for the Hawkeyes to win games in March. And that makes Sunday’s regular-season finale at Illinois so important.

No. 18 Iowa (20-10, 11-8 Big Ten Conference) would secure the 4 seed in the Big Ten Tournament with a season sweep of the No. 22 Fighting Illini (20-10, 12-7). Tipoff is at 6 p.m. and the game can be seen on the Big Ten Network.

A 4 seed would give the Hawkeyes a double-bye in the conference tournament, meaning they would play their next game on Friday in the quarterfinals, needing only three wins to capture the title. And if Garza can help his team pull that off, you can go ahead and etch his name on all the trophies.

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Team success and individual accolades tend to go hand-in-hand in sports. And no player in America has had a bigger hand in his team’s fortunes than Garza. It’s inconceivable to think of Iowa having a winning record, let alone being ranked, without the steady greatness Garza has shown all season, one in which he’s already set the program record for points in a season with 712.

Garza accounts for 30.5% of Iowa’s points and 26.3% of its rebounds (297). He has been the Hawkeyes’ leading scorer in 21 games and its top rebounder in 24.

He is a near-lock to be Iowa’s first Big Ten MVP since 1968 (Sam Williams) and first consensus all-American since 1952 (Chuck Darling).

But Garza would be fighting recent history to win national player of the year if Iowa doesn’t finish strong. More people are watching games in March. The stakes are higher, for the Hawkeyes and Garza.

A Big Ten title would raise the profile of both. And Sunday’s prime-time game is essentially the beginning of that quest for the Hawkeyes.

Why is winning so important? Because voters for player of the year tend to gravitate toward star players on the best teams. For example: The last time a winner of the Wooden or Naismith awards played on a team seeded lower than third in the NCAA Tournament was Kevin Durant of Texas in 2007. His Longhorns were a 4 seed that year.

The Hawkeyes currently project as a 6 seed, but four wins over the next eight days would easily get them to a 4. And give Garza all the separation he needs between other player of the year contenders like Dayton’s Obi Toppin, Marquette’s Markus Howard and the Kansas duo of Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson.

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery lobbied for Garza at a recent news conference, pointing out that he’s compiling his statistics while playing in a Big Ten stacked with talented big men.

It’s true. Garza has been at his best when facing the best.

He has 10 consecutive games of 20 points or more against teams ranked in the top 25. That’s the longest by any player in the past 15 seasons.

Garza is averaging 26.1 points in league games, the most by a true center since Minnesota’s Tom Kondla in 1967. No player this millennium had averaged more than 21.6 points in Big Ten contests before Garza, who is doing it while facing a 20-game schedule.

Garza, when asked, credits his teammates for this. He points out that they feed him the basketball when he’s in position to score, despite the myriad ways opposing coaches have tried to prevent that very thing from happening.

“You’ve got to be a really good passer. You’ve got to be crafty to get me the ball,” Garza said.

One of those teammates, sophomore guard Joe Wieskamp, has no doubt that Garza should win every major award.

“I think it’s kind of a joke that other players are even considered for it right now,” Wieskamp said. “The season that he’s had is incredible. Night in and night out, you know what you’re going to get from him.”

The best way Wieskamp could help his friend out would be to step up his game on the court. He’s been quiet the past five games, averaging a mere 8.4 points on 27% shooting.

Wieskamp, not Garza, was the Hawkeye on the preseason all-Big Ten list. He knows he needs to keep shooting.

“I feel like I need to play even more confident, and realize that I am one of the better players in the Big Ten,” Wieskamp said.

If Wieskamp plays at that level, the Hawkeyes will be difficult to beat.

And if they win, so will Garza.

This is March.

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.

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