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Luka Garza on verge of entering Hawkeye record book: 'I got really lucky to be in this program'

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — On the brink of making Hawkeye men’s basketball history, Luka Garza still insists it was his good fortune to have linked up with this coach and these teammates, not the other way around.

He has pushed himself to become arguably the greatest player to ever don an Iowa uniform. Yet when Garza was asked by the Des Moines Register how he has arrived at this moment, he said simply: “I got really lucky to be in this program.”

Luck doesn’t account for 2,103 points, 845 rebounds and one fan base completely transfixed by your every move. But it’s not surprising that Garza would see it that way.

The name Luka means “bringer of light” in Latin. There’s no question that it applies to Garza. It’s just that he prefers to shine it on anyone but himself.

Origin story:Luka Garza's path from overweight high schooler to Iowa center

“I was selected to come here and play for coach (Fran) McCaffery,” he continued in that recent interview. “And with all these guys. I’ve never been a part of unselfish teams like that, that move the ball around like that. That make me look good and put myself in position to score.”

Sometime late Sunday afternoon at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Garza will likely put a basketball through a very familiar hoop to score his 14th point in a game against Penn State. That will give him 2,117 for his career … and counting. And it will move him past the late Roy Marble as the most prolific scorer in the 125-year history of Iowa men’s basketball.

Will Luka Garza become the Iowa men's basketball program's leading scorer Sunday on a hook shot like this one over Ohio State's E.J. Liddell? It's impossible to know. But what is clear that the all-American center is on the verge of surpassing Roy Marble's 2,116 career points, a milestone for which he credits his coaches and teammates, but not himself.

There’s no way of predicting how Garza will get there. It could be on a hook shot over a helpless defender. Or on a rebound of his own missed shot, Garza wearing a determined look on his face as he covers up for his own mistake. He is making 3-pointers at the best rate of his career, the result of countless hours spent in gyms during a pandemic summer. And, as always, he is forcing his way to the free-throw line, where he’s already been 589 times in four sweat-soaked seasons, opponents choosing to foul him rather than let him wear them down in the low post.

Any of those would be appropriate. Garza has, quite simply, run out of ways to score as a collegian. He’s gotten better every year, and he was very good when he arrived.

“He’s the epitome of Iowa basketball,” Garza’s teammate, CJ Fredrick, said this week.

Garza shows promise in first two seasons, brilliance in the next two

Garza scored exactly 400 points during a freshman season in which he started 26 games. He followed with another 419 as a sophomore. That’s two solid winters, but nothing to gush about yet.

In his junior year, Garza reached another level. It was a breakthrough that his father and personal skills coach, Frank, said would have happened as a sophomore except that Luka was sidetracked just before that season began by surgery to extract a nine-pound cyst from his abdomen. Garza didn’t miss a game, but you can see how that level of trauma might cause a setback in an athlete’s conditioning. The moment became part of Garza’s lore, fans adoring him even more because of his obvious toughness and drive.

Remember this? Iowa basketball: Luka Garza's removed cyst weighed ... 9 pounds

Garza was a unanimous all-American last year, averaging 23.9 points per game despite getting as much attention on the court as off of it. He eclipsed 20 points in a remarkable 19 consecutive games, unstoppable even as defenses hounded him.

In the summer, Garza thrilled Iowa fans again by announcing he would remain a Hawkeye for a senior season, passing up an opportunity to earn a big salary overseas. He wanted to win a championship, Garza explained, and believes this Iowa team has that capability.

That’s why he has politely downplayed the talk of his impending milestone. For Garza, Sunday’s 4 p.m. tipoff against Penn State (7-11, 4-10 Big Ten Conference) represents a chance for the Hawkeyes to earn a fourth consecutive victory and keep momentum rolling into March. No. 14 Iowa sits at 16-6 overall, 10-5 in the league, and is coming off a 77-62 win at Wisconsin in which Garza scored 30 points.

Garza leads the nation with a 24.7-point scoring average. He is shooting a career-best 56.2% overall and making 3s at a 45.1% rate (32 of 71). He is a leading contender to win national player of the year honors. But none of that is preoccupying him during the season.

“It’s definitely going to mean a lot,” Garza said of his place in Hawkeye history. “Later in life, I think that will be an accomplishment that I’ll be more proud of. But right now, it’s just winning games. That’s the focus.”

More:Iowa's Luka Garza is an unlikely college basketball star with the help of grueling workouts

McCaffery undoubtedly appreciates that sentiment from the biggest star he has ever coached. But he is happy to tout Garza at every turn. He knows how difficult this achievement is. Garza became the first Iowa player to score at least 400 points in each of his four seasons.

“It was one of those records that, you knew it would eventually get broken, but it was going to be really hard, especially now with people leaving early,” McCaffery said.

“You're going to have to be an incredibly productive player for four years to score over 2,000 points and stay on the floor. I'm so proud of Luka. … I just wish Roy was here to see it and be a part of it.”

Garza, who has studied Marble’s legacy, will make sure to shine a little light that way. Marble, a 6-foot-6 guard, amassed his 2,116 points from 1985-89. His son, Devyn, later starred at Carver-Hawkeye Arena for McCaffery.

“It would be a tremendous honor to be able to be talked about in the same sentence as him,” Garza said of Roy Marble.

“I’ve always been a guy who’s appreciated the legends of the game of basketball. And, especially at a place like this, at a university that I love, I want to know who’s the best and how they did it.”

Garza is soon to be the best. As to how he did it, let’s just say it took much more than luck.

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.