Merely by returning to the Iowa Hawkeyes for his senior season in 2020-21, All-American center Luka Garza is joining esteemed company as one of the rare Sporting News Player of the Year award winners to return the following season.
That is not the only elite group he’s wishing to join.
With Garza returning to the Hawkeyes, they’ll have their seven of their top-10 point producers returning from an offense that ranked No. 5 in efficiency among Division I teams. The defense was not at that that level, ranking just 97th, and will need to improve for Iowa to challenge for its first Big Ten title since 1979 and first NCAA Final Four since 1980. But that’s the plan.
“It’s been really strange, and very difficult. COVID-19 added a lot of uncertainty,” Garza told the media Sunday. “At the end of the day, I felt very confident that I wanted to come back and finish my career at the University of Iowa.”
Garza showed up 10 minutes early for the announcement that he would withdraw from the 2020 NBA Draft, which was conducted via Zoom, perhaps an indication of his eagerness to resume Iowa basketball’s climb.
Garza said he was confident he would have been drafted had he remained on the early entry list, although he acknowledged the common criticisms of his game. He said he had opportunities to play in Europe “for a lot of money” but chose to remain in college because “I love this place too much to leave it early.”
Garza’s decision was complicated by the uncertainty about college basketball in 2021-21 as a result of the pandemic, but he said he is “confident there will be a college basketball season.” He said it might be delayed or altered but believes the season will occur, and he would have regretted departing on the expectation it would be canceled and then been forced to watch as the Hawkeyes played without him.
The chance to add to his legacy as college basketball player was another factor in his return. He mentioned looking up to players like Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky and North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough, who completed their senior seasons, and referred to them as “legends.”
He was asked if the pressure of being a preseason player of the year might bother him and mentioned how he tuned out awards buzz last season.
“Four games in, and I’m hearing first-team All-American,” Garza said. “And I was able to tune that out.”
Garza is the first Sporting News Player of the Year to return the next season since Hansbrough, who won in 2008. He did not repeat as our winner — Oklahoma’s Blake Griffin surpassed him that season — but he did one better by leading the Tar Heels to the 2009 NCAA championship.
Garza is the fifth SN winner to return for another season since 1980. The others: Ralph Sampson (1982), Michael Jordan (1983) and Dee Brown (2005).
He could become the fifth player to win the award in consecutive years, joining Jordan, Bill Walton (1972, 1973, 1974), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1967, 1969), Bill Bradley (1964, 1965), Jerry Lucas (1961, 1962) and Oscar Robertson (1958, 1959, 1960).
That’s some mighty company.
Garza’s return is not unexpected. He was not highly rated by draft analysts and had trained with the Hawkeyes since they returned to campus, although their work was interrupted briefly because of multiple COVID-19 positives among the players.
He will turn 22 during the season and is expected to have a long pro career, although his lack of leaping ability and lateral quickness may mean spending most of his time in European leagues.
“He’s incredibly confident in his ability to better himself,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “A lot of people would take the money that’s in front of them.
“Luke is a big-picture guy. He’s looking at everything.”
Garza averaged 23.9 points and 9.8 rebounds for an Iowa squad competing in what could be described as the deepest conference in a generation, albeit one lacking the receipts because March Madness was canceled. The NCAA Tournament selection committee did not produce even a bracket for conversation purposes, but the final composite of roughly 100 mock brackets at the Bracket Matrix placed 10 Big Ten teams in its field, all with a No. 9 seed or better.
Garza routinely was challenged by high-level big men — including Minnesota’s Daniel Oturu, Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn, Maryland’s Jalen Smith, Michigan State’s Xavier Tillman — but recorded 15 double-doubles, five 30-point games and closed the 2019-20 season with 16 consecutive games of 20 or more points. He is a powerful low-post scorer who converted 58.9 percent of his 2-point attempts but also rang up 39 3-pointers as a 36-percent shooter from long distance. He attempted 195 free throws, but his 65.1 percent accuracy was well down from better than 80 percent as a sophomore.
That consistent against elite competition is why Garza was chosen by SN over Dayton’s extraordinary Obi Toppin.
After losing point guard Jordan Bohannon to injury 10 games into the year, Iowa managed to finish fifth in the Big Ten with a 21-10 overall record and 11-9 mark in conference play. The Bracket Matrix predicted them for a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament, had it been played, although that would have been impacted by how the Hawkeyes performed in the Big Ten championship, which also was canceled because of the pandemic.