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

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Iowa — 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 face of an Iowa team that is ranked No. 17 entering Wednesday’s game at Purdue. The work he put in last summer has paid off to the tune of 23 points and 10.4 rebounds per game. Garza has become the leading candidate for Big Ten player of the year and is in the conversation for national player of the year.

Iowa center Luka Garza reacts after drawing a foul during his team's game against Rutgers, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

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.”

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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.

Garza credits the 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.

Luka Garza prepares to drive on his cousin, Denis Alibegovic, while  his father, Frank, looks on last summer in Sarajevo, Bosnia. Luka worked out three times a day on that European trip, and it's  paying off during a great junior season at Iowa.

“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.”

The experience was part of the basketball excellence Garza grew up surrounded by.

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.

“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, Garza's ninth-grade history teacher and 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.

Luka Garza stands out at a Maret School concert, as the world's tallest viola player. Teachers there recalled him as a passionate and dedicated musician who just enjoyed being part of the ensemble.

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.”

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.

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.

With all the numbers Garza is putting up, you would think he’d be getting plenty of NBA attention.

He’s not.

Minnesota center Daniel Oturu and Maryland big man Jalen Smith are both considered first-round picks in the most recent mock draft at 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.

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.”