Senior Luka Garza is quite literally the biggest reason why. The 6-11, 265-pound senior has improved from an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention selection in the 2019 season, to a consensus All-American in 2020, to the frontrunner for numerous national player of the awards in 2021.
Here’s what makes Garza one of the best men’s college basketball players in the country.
He’s incredibly efficient
When Garza is on the floor for Iowa, which is nearly 30 minutes per game, he takes one out of every three shots, on average. That’s the 33rd-highest rate in the country and despite shouldering such a heavy load, Garza’s offensive rating actually ranks even higher than his massive shot rate. Through Jan. 19, Garza’s 135.8 offensive rating is 20th nationally, but it is the highest by far, among players with a usage rate of at least 28 percent.
While Garza’s usage rate (meaning the percent of Iowa’s possessions that end in a made shot from Garza, a missed Garza shot rebounded by the defense or a Garza turnover, when he’s on the floor) is 29.9 percent, the 19 players whose offensive rating is higher than his includes American’s Lorenzo Donadio (just a 5.1-percent usage rate), Merrimack’s Jordan McKoy (8.6 percent) and LSU’s Mwani Wilkinson (9.0 percent), so Garza’s efficiency rating is one that’s typically associated with a role player or reserve who’s an elite 3-point shooter.
But he’s not one of those players. He’s the leading scorer and the leader in minutes played for a team that’s competing for a regular-season title in probably the deepest conference in the country — the Big Ten.
He’s having a late-career 3-point renaissance
In two of Garza’s first three seasons, he was a slightly-above-average 3-point shooter — a 34.8-percent shooter on 46 attempts as a freshman and a 35.8-percent marksman on 109 attempts as a junior — but in between, he made just 29 percent of his threes as a sophomore.
From the 2017-18 season through the 2020 campaign, he was at best a big who might attempt two or three 3-pointers in a game, and maybe make one of them, or one every two games or so, on average. However, this season, in addition to being one of the most efficient low-post scorers in the country, he’s now an elite 3-point shooter through the first two months of the season as he has made nearly 48 percent of his 48 3-point attempts.
While Garza’s average 3-point attempts per game (3.4) only ranks fourth on the team, and well behind that of teammate Jordan Bohannon (6.9 per game), he has shown the ability to make a high volume of threes in a game, not just a high percentage. He was 6-for-7 from deep against rival Iowa State in December, then 4-for-8 from three against Purdue a few weeks later. He was 3-for-3 from outside against Southern.
While he hasn’t made more than two 3-pointers in a game for nearly a month, he has still shown the ability to get hot from outside, which is a dangerous addition to Iowa’s offense for opposing defenses. The mere threat of a 3-pointer from Garza forces defenses to play him differently and opens up interior scoring opportunities. On the possession below against Maryland, Garza curled around from the left block and received a pass at the top of the key, where Maryland’s Galin Smith closed out on him and braced for a potential 3-pointer.
Instead, Garza ball-faked, took one dribble and settled for a mid-range jumper that Smith was late to contest.
He draws a lot of fouls and then makes his free throws
How do you try to stop a 6-11 center who makes two-thirds of his shots inside the arc and nearly 48 percent of his attempts from behind it?
Well, intentional or not, the answer is often to foul.
Garza is drawing an average of 6.8 fouls per 40 minutes, which is one of the highest rates in the country. For every 10 field-goal attempts, he averages roughly 4.3 free-throw attempts for a 43.3-percent free-throw rate. He’s averaging nearly seven free throw attempts per game and he has attempted 10 or more in a game three times in Iowa’s first 14 games. He’s seventh nationally in total free-throw attempts through Jan. 19 with 97.
After a down year that saw him make just 65 percent of his free throws as a junior, Garza is converting at a 75-percent clip at the charity stripe this season, so he’s getting an average of 5.2 of his 26.9 points per game from the free-throw line.
Sure, fouling Garza might stop the game clock, but it won’t stop his scoring.
He’s big, but that doesn’t mean he can’t beat you down the floor
On the defensive possession against Iowa State, shown below, Garza challenged a 3-point shot in the left corner from Iowa State’s No. 1, and Garza was quite literally facing the opposite direction from the Cyclones’ basket. Plus, no one on the court was further from Iowa State’s hoop than Garza.
Then, Iowa’s Joe Wieskamp grabbed the rebound and flipped the ball to teammate Jordan Bohannon, while Garza was streaking down the floor. By the team he reached the Hawkeye logo at midcourt, only one player — from either team — was between him and the basket, as he beat his teammates down the floor.
Before Bohannon crossed halfcourt, he had seen Garza running the floor, so when Garza reached the paint before anyone else, he established strong inside position, caught a high entry pass that was thrown where only he could’ve caught it, then he took one emphatic dribble, before scoring on the other side of the rim.
There aren’t too many players who Garza will beat in a foot race, but that runout against Iowa State was purely one of effort and Bohannon was happy to reward him for his efforts. Garza has made 76.2 percent of his attempts at the rim (layups, dunks and tip-ins), so when his advantage in effort leads to him having an advantage in positioning, thanks to his advantage in size, then Iowa’s opponents are in trouble.
His team is winning and that’s not to be underestimated
Garza has certainly been a major factor in No. 4 Iowa’s 12-2 start to the season, including a 6-1 mark in Big Ten play, and likewise, Iowa’s success has then boosted Garza’s profile and chances of winning National Player of the Year. When award season rolls around, it’s better to be a 27-points-per-game scorer on a top-five team that might win the Big Ten than a 27-points-per-game scorer for a team that’s dancing in and out of the AP Top 25 and one that finishes fifth in its conference.
Last season’s Naismith Award Winner, Dayton’s Obi Toppin, played for a team that went 29-2 and one that would’ve been in contention for a No. 1 seed. Duke’s Zion Williamson won the award in 2019 after his Blue Devils were the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. Villanova’s Jalen Brunson was the winner in 2018, when the Wildcats won the national championship.
Team success is certainly part of the equation and the fact that Iowa surrounds Garza with four players who are shooting better than 40 percent from 3-point range forces opposing defenses to cover the entire floor and it prevents them from only honing in on the Hawkeyes’ All-American big man.
On this possession against Northwestern, Northwestern’s Boo Buie is forced to respect Iowa’s CJ Fredrick (a 51-percent 3-point shooter) in the right corner, while Garza seals off Northwestern’s Pete Nance for an easy entry pass. On the opposite wing, two Iowa players switch spots, leaving their defenders visibly confused, and when the help defense does arrive, it’s too late and Garza puts up an easy shot from point-blank range.
And if opponents do choose to double or triple-team Garza, well, then he has a bevy of teammates who are capable of scoring efficiently and the No. 1 offense in the country is going to win a lot of games when its shooters are left open, and continued winning will help Garza’s profile as much as 30-point scoring games.