Luka Garza and No. 5 Iowa open Big Ten play looking to flex on a recent nemesis: Purdue
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Luka Garza was still in high school the last time Iowa beat Purdue in a men’s basketball game.
The Hawkeyes’ all-American senior center is well aware of that history, and Tuesday may be his last chance to rewrite it.
No. 5 Iowa opens its Big Ten Conference season against a Boilermakers team that has dominated this matchup for three years, always with some new 7-footer and a crew of wing players that suddenly seem to make every 3-point shot they take.
It is the only scheduled meeting of the season between the teams. Tipoff is at 8 p.m. at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, with the Big Ten Network providing the broadcast.
Garza scored 52 points in a pair of Iowa losses to Purdue last season. He had 19 against them as a freshman. In his sophomore year, Garza missed three games due to injury; one of them was a rout by the Boilermakers.
That’s four Iowa losses in a row, by a total of 80 points, the most recent coming in Iowa’s final home game last winter.
“Losing to them on our home floor on Senior Day is something that definitely doesn’t sit well with me,” Garza said Monday when asked about the matchup.
The 6-foot-11 star added this: “I love the physicality that Purdue plays with.”
Garza knows what’s coming, not only on Tuesday against Purdue but for the 19 Big Ten games that follow. It’s a punishing league with experienced coaches who will deploy their largest players in an effort to slow down the reigning Big Ten player of the year.
Garza spends his offseasons conditioning for these moments. He believes he can play 40 minutes a night if need be.
Here’s what he’ll face Tuesday:
“We’ve got to come out and hit him first,” Boilermakers center Trevion Williams said when asked about defending Garza.
He probably meant that figuratively, but note that Williams stands 6-10, 265 pounds.
Backing up Williams is freshman Zach Edey. He’s 7-4, 285 pounds, the tallest opponent Garza has ever faced. Previous Purdue centers were Isaac Haas at 7-2 and Matt Haarms at 7-3. You see the trend here.
Here’s what Purdue coach Matt Painter is telling his big men about contending with Garza:
“You’ve got to play hard. He sprints the floor. He’s physical. You have to be able to show your hands and not let him bully you to the basket. He’ll just make moves and just physically overwhelm people. So you’ve got to be in legal guarding position to start with. If you’re behind or he’s got an angle, or if you can’t move your feet east and west, he’s gonna get to where he wants to get to.”
Garza is averaging 29.3 points to lead the nation. Painter is correct when he says Garza is going to get where he wants to get to; he’s been consistently excellent for two seasons.
But what will it take for the Hawkeyes (6-1) to get to where they want to get to, which is the Final Four? Coach Fran McCaffery and his players were in unison on that point, two days after dropping a 99-88 decision to top-ranked Gonzaga.
“Rebounding and defending at a higher level,” Garza said, summing up what the team has discussed coming out of its first loss.
“We need five guys to go to the glass and no one to leak out.”
The Big Ten is the toughest conference in America. Watching Garza spend another winter battling his way through it will no doubt be thrilling for Hawkeye fans. That starts Tuesday against Purdue (6-2), which owns a win over Ohio State but is also fielding the least-experienced team in the league with seven freshmen and no seniors on the roster.
More important, though, will be to watch the Hawkeyes’ effort on the glass and on defense. It will be a nightly test, and improvement will be easy to measure.
The Boilermakers beat the Hawkeyes to 22 more missed shots in their two victories last year. Part of that was hustle, but Williams offered another explanation.
“We were really aggressive,” the Purdue junior said. “We knew their plays inside and out.”
If that’s the case again Tuesday, it means the Hawkeyes’ shots won’t come as easily or fall as frequently as usual. That makes rebounding even more paramount.
This season, Iowa was outrebounded by North Carolina 47-38, but won the game 93-80 by making 17 3-point shots. Gonzaga had a 49-37 advantage on the glass, and the Hawkeyes couldn’t overcome it because they made only 4 of 22 shots from the arc.
Shooting is about muscle memory. Rebounding is just about muscle.
Both are important, but shooting is easier to practice. Rebounding requires maximum physical effort, particularly in the Big Ten.
Sophomore guard CJ Fredrick, a terrific two-way player at 6-3, said the Hawkeyes know what lies ahead between now and March, 20 games that will separate the men from the boys, starting with a chance to flex on Purdue.
“We’ve got to get after it on the glass,” he said, “and be the tougher team.”
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.