Luka Garza becomes first Hawkeye to win Big Ten player of the year
Luka Garza dominated the Big Ten Conference this year like few basketball players ever have.
On Monday, he became the first Iowa Hawkeye to be named the conference's player of the year. The award was first handed out in 1985 and is voted on by the league's coaches and media.
Garza, a 6-foot-11 junior center from Washington, D.C., averaged 26.2 points and 9.7 rebounds in 20 games against Big Ten opponents. He scored at least 20 points in all but one of them, and put up 44 at Michigan and 38 at Indiana.
Garza is the biggest reason the Hawkeyes are ranked 25th in the nation and enter the Big Ten Tournament with a 20-11 record.
"It's the preparation that I put into the offseason as well as the improvement in the mental side of the game. Just being able to come out every game and be consistent and play as hard as I can. And don't let the outside noise bother me in any way," Garza said after Sunday's loss at Illinois when asked the reason for his success this season.
"The biggest thing going into this year was just, 'I'm going to play for my team.' Doing that means that I'm going to just completely focus on the game, not really focus on what people say about me, or the pressure. ... I don't think (the award) would happen for me anywhere in any other situation if I had chose a different school. I'm just really thankful and blessed to be playing at the University of Iowa with the group of guys we've got and coach (Fran) McCaffery."
Garza is also a prime contender for national player of the year awards.
The last Iowa men's player to be considered the best in the Big Ten was Sam Williams in 1968, back when the Chicago Tribune named a league MVP.
Also honored by the Big Ten on Monday were Iowa sophomore guard Joe Wieskamp, named third-team all-conference, and redshirt freshman guard CJ Fredrick, who made the all-freshman team. Wieskamp ranks second on the Hawkeyes at 14 points per game and leads the league in free-throw accuracy at 85.6%. Fredrick is third on the team at 10.2 points per game and leads the Big Ten in 3-point shooting accuracy at 46.1%.
Garza averaged 13.1 points per game as a sophomore, then spent his offseason participating in rigorous training programs from California to Bosnia.
He returned to a Hawkeye team missing star power forward Tyler Cook, who turned pro a year early, and starting shooting guard Isaiah Moss. In addition, starting point guard Jordan Bohannon had undergone May hip surgery and his status was in doubt.
The Hawkeyes, coming off an NCAA Tournament appearance, were picked to finish eighth in the Big Ten in a preseason media poll.
Garza put them on his shoulders.
McCaffery, who recruited Garza and has had an up-close look at his ascension this season, said Monday it starts with the work that fans don't see.
"A lot of guys talk about, 'Yeah, I put the time in. I get in the gym and grind.' But for him it's kind of a way of life," McCaffery said.
"It's just a never-ending pursuit of excellence that you just don't often see. There never seems to be a stop in his desire to be better. ... I've coached some really good players, but Luka Garza is unique."
Garza was held below 10 points in only one game all season. In that, he had nine in a loss against No. 6 San Diego State.
Garza demanded so much attention from opposing defenses that he drew 6.4 fouls per game. And it never slowed him down.
He has scored 20 points or more in each of Iowa's past 16 games, a school record and the most by a Big Ten player since Ohio State's Dennis Hopson in 1987.
Garza shattered Iowa's single season scoring record, with 740 and counting. The Hawkeyes next play the winner of Wednesday's Minnesota-Northwestern game at 1:30 p.m. Thursday in Indianapolis.
"That's something you don't really think of going into the year. You think of winning and team goals," Garza said Sunday about the possibility of being the Big Ten player of the year. "But I'm just excited that I've been able to put myself in the conversation for a prestigious award like that in a league like this. This is the best league in the country, so to win that award would mean the world to me."
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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