Luka Garza May Be the Most Dominant Player You're Not Talking About

Garza has transformed his game for his junior season, and he's putting the Big Ten on notice.
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Luka Garza can understand why you're mystified.

For the casual hoops fan, the name "Luka" is associated with Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic, who's been so dominant this season (28.9 points, 9.7 rebounds, nine assists a game) that he's drawing comparisons to former Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird.

That Doncic shares his first name with, arguably, college basketball's player of the year, well ... that's the part that may surprise.

"I don't really care about who knows me and what I'm doing and who doesn't," Garza said. "I'm aware that people may not know as much about me, but I don't give it much thought. It honestly just makes me smile. It's more motivation."

And it's yielding results.

Iowa basketball Luke Garza

Garza leads the Big Ten in scoring at 22.9 points a game, which is up substantially from his 13.1 points a game last season. The junior is also second in the conference in rebounding (10.2 per game) heading into Wednesday's matchup between the No. 19 Hawkeyes (13-5, 4-3) and No. 24 Rutgers in Iowa City.

"He's proven that he's one of the best college basketball players in the country," Michigan coach Juwan Howard said after Garza scored 33 points to lead the Hawkeyes past the Wolverines 90-83 on Jan. 17—his fourth 30-point game of the season. "I didn't know Garza last season, nor did I know him from an AAU circuit, but I had a chance to speak to Team Takeover and they talked about how his game has improved year after year. What I've witnessed thus far, the guy's a player and all the hard work he's put in is paying off."

There are few things more cliché in the sports world than the phrase "when preparation meets opportunity," but Garza embodies that concept perfectly.

"Everyone can say they just need more shots or more time on the floor and they'll produce," Garza said. "I knew it was more important to work to be ready than to talk about it. I needed the experience of last year to be able to do this now. I don't think I could've done this last year. I didn't know how, but I knew my time would come. More importantly I knew I would be ready."

Garza's emergence happened organically.

Last season he and Tyler Cook formed one of the most productive frontcourts in the country; Garza averaged 13.1 points and 4.5 rebounds a game, while Cook, now with the Cleveland Cavaliers, pumped in 14.1 points and 6.7 rebounds a game.

Before the season, Iowa coach Fran McCaffrey pulled Garza into his office to discuss his expanded role without his frontcourt sidekick. But when the Hawkeyes lost guard Jordan Bohannon (hip) and forward Jack Nunge (ACL) to season-ending injuries, Garza learned that the offense would run through him.

"His work ethic and preparation put him in position to be successful," McCaffrey said. "It doesn't surprise me what he's doing at all. He doesn't ever take a possession off, he's my hardest worker and he's mentally tough."

The latter was put to the test before the start of last season when Garza learned that he'd have to have a 9-pound cyst removed from his abdomen.

He said that adversity strengthened his mental focus and faith, but also gave him a greater appreciation for the game.

"It made me look at everything a little different," Garza said. "I had the risk of not playing and losing my spleen and I had to rely on my dad and nurses to even stand up. It motivated me more and it made me want to be more focused mentally on this game."

Luka Garza Iowa basketball

Three times before every game, Garza meditates; twice by himself and once with his father, Frank Garza, and his father's business partner via FaceTime.

It's a practice Garza started last season after following up a four-game stretch of 20-point games in Big Ten play with what the big man referred to as "the worst stretch of my career."

"I was so worried about whether I was gonna get 20 again, and it was giving me anxiety," Garza said. "I want to be centered and present, never too high or too low. There's too much you could worry about if you let your mind go there."

To that end, good luck finding Garza on any major NBA draft boards.

To say that a 6-foot-11, 260-pounder with a diverse skill set and proven dominant scoring ability on all three levels in the Big Ten, of all conferences, isn't projected to be taken in one of the 60 picks in June's draft is, well, odd.

Luka's response? "More motivation."

"Little by little, people are starting to figure out how special Luka is," McCaffrey said. "I think that trend will continue and everything will take care of itself. The best part is that he doesn't concern himself with it. He really doesn't. He's got work to do."