Iowa center Luka Garza knew, when he got on the phone the other day, that the purpose of the conversation would be to discuss his selection as Sporting News College Basketball Player of the Year for the 2020-21 season. So it wasn’t a phone call that I didn’t want to do. This was good news.
Within moments of saying hello, she learned that it was better than she had ever dreamed of.
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Garza was also our winner as a junior, in 2019-20. Which means that he has won for the second season in a row. The last player named Sporting News Player of the Year in back-to-back seasons was a teammate who has become universally known by his initials: MJ
“Oh wow,” Garza said upon receiving this information.
Sporting News has presented this award uninterruptedly since 1958, dating back to the 1943 season. The only men to win it in consecutive years since were Oscar Robertson (1958, 1959, 1960), Jerry Lucas (1961, 1962), Bill Bradley (1964, 1965), Bill Walton (1972, 1973, 1974) and Michael Jordan. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won it twice, in 1967 and 1969, but his reign was interrupted by Elvin Hayes’ tremendous 1968 season.
Is anyone else dizzy from this discussion of basketball greats, or is it just Luka?
“Honestly, hearing that is surreal,” Garza told Sporting News. “It’s not something I ever imagined I could do, but I always worked as hard as I could. I never came to college expecting things like that. I just wanted to win. I wanted to work hard and become the best player I could be. “
Turns out that player is better than about 4,500 others in Division I men’s basketball for the second year in a row. By leading all major conference scorers with 24.3 points per game, handing the Hawkeyes averages of 8.4 rebounds, 1.5 blocks, 55.1 percent from the field goal, and 45.5 percent 3-point accuracy, Garza remained on top. from a strong field of candidates including Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu and Baylor guard Jared Butler.
As a high school player at Maret School in Washington, Garza was ranked the 118th best prospect in the recruiting class of 2017. That seemed like an understatement from the start, when he averaged 12.1 points and 6.4 rebounds as a freshman for a Hawkeyes. under reconstruction. squad that finished 13th in the Big Ten. It was good for 13.1 points a year later, but hinted at better things to come with 20 points in a comeback win over Cincinnati in the 2019 NCAA Tournament and 13 in a second-round loss in overtime to Tennessee. the favorite favorite.
He became a dominant player as a junior, demonstrating an uncommon ability to finish with any hand, the stamina to last 32 minutes per game, the ferocity to deal with a seemingly endless string of elite college greats in the Big Ten, among they from Minnesota. Daniel Oturu, Michigan State’s Xavier Tillman and Maryland’s Jalen Smith, who now play in the NBA. Garza averaged 23.9 points and 9.8 rebounds and ran a 20-point game series that went to 16.
He has failed to reach double-digit scoring only once in the past two seasons, in a landslide victory over Michigan State last month that required him to contribute just 23 minutes and eight points. This is a better Hawkeyes team than anyone Garza has ever played for and has designs to challenge for the Big Ten Tournament title and a Final Four appearance.
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He had obviously already accomplished a lot in college basketball when last season reached its disappointing conclusion, with the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although he was not considered a likely first-round pick in the NBA draft, he could have played professionally, as there were professional teams across the ocean eager to sign him. Garza chose instead to play one more year with the Hawkeyes.
“There is not a part of me that regrets my decision,” Garza said. “I love this place. I love my teammates. I love my coaches and I have loved every second of being here. Obviously this year is a little different in terms of having to be very focused on basketball, but the family atmosphere that we have at the University of Iowa makes it a lot of fun. It’s been a real blessing to be on this team and to play with some of the guys that I do. “
While last season Iowa finished 25th in the AP poll and fifth in a loaded Big Ten before the March Madness disappeared, this team is ranked No. 5 in the nation and third in the conference. That’s in part because shooter Jordan Bohannon returned to the team after recovering from hip surgery, Connor McCaffery’s passing ability produces 3.6 assists in 22 minutes per game, reserve playmaker Joe Toussaint delivers another 2.3 assists in 11 minutes, talented rookies Keegan Murray and Patrick McCaffery have deepened the rotation and guards Joe Wieskamp and CJ Frederick have become even more deadly as shooters. Iowa ranks third in the nation in 3-point shooting percentage.
The Hawkeyes have also become, after years of fighting, a more formidable defensive team. Over the course of Garza’s career, they finished 242, 111 and 97 in defensive efficiency according to KenPom.com. Even this season, after losing four times in a five-game stretch, they slipped out of the Division I top 100 in that category.
With Garza as the team’s last line of defense, Iowa has moved up to 58th. That’s not extraordinary competition, but it’s a huge improvement. And with the No. 2 offense at its disposal, defending at this level gives Iowa the potential to win many of the biggest games.
“I think we are really committed to understanding that if we want to win games, we have to play defense, we have to make saves and we have to play hard on every possession,” Garza said. “You cannot take away any possessions, especially when you play against the teams that you are in the Big Ten, because they are going to make you pay. And that’s what happened to us.
“In that section where we lost a pair, the interesting thing was that our offense was scoring very well, and then we had a little drought, and that’s where the game got away from us because we couldn’t keep making stops. during that drought. Once we figured out when we were able to consistently stop throughout the game, our offense will pick up at some point. We have the ability to score at a really high level. “
Garza believes “100 percent” is better than the young man who won the Sporting News Player of the Year award last year. The 2020 offseason was different than last because the pandemic affected many aspects of his life, as did everyone else, but it did not prevent him from investing an extraordinary amount of time and energy to improve his strength, endurance and basketball ability. .
“I worked really hard this summer to try to improve myself as much as I could,” Garza said. “Because I knew that when I went back to college, I wanted to help and lead this team to win championships, put us in position to do a race in March. I think we had great victories this year and we are not satisfied.
“I am grateful to have teammates who make me look good. Because I’m a big man, and in order to score, I need to have great bases that can put me in position to be able to do that, and they have done it countless times throughout my career. “
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.