By John Bohnenkamp
He has said so many words over his career, but one sentence on Thursday night captured Luka Garza’s career at Iowa.
Garza had just finished a 30-point night in the Hawkeyes’ 77-62 win at Wisconsin, just another stone in the wall he has built between himself and the other contenders for the national player of the year honor, a wall that some had speculated had a few cracks in it this week.
When he gets to 14 points in Sunday’s home game against Penn State, Garza will become the all-time leading scorer in program history, passing Roy Marble.
Awards, records, points — yeah, that’s cool for Garza.
But it’s not why he’s here, he has been stressing all season. It’s not why the center came back for his senior center when he could have taken an NBA shot or packed a bag to get a big payday somewhere in Europe.
Garza said he came back to win. The Hawkeyes have 16 of them this season, and want more, especially six in three weeks of the NCAA tournament.
So the rest of the little parts that Garza is adding to his resumé?
“Everything,” Garza said, “will take care of itself.”
The talk — the “noise,” as Garza called it Thursday — has been around him all season, a steady hum like the piped-in crowd sounds to compensate for the empty arenas for games. With the talk has come the constant questions that Garza has deflected with a humble attitude befitting of his game.
The consistency, the relentlessness, that Garza plays with doesn’t have the flash of others, and flash can be sometimes blinding.
So, when Garza scored just eight points in last Saturday’s 30-point win at Michigan State, there were those who wondered if maybe this whole player-of-the-year thing wasn’t settled yet.
“For me, honestly, I was just trying to focus, tunnel vision, on what our team wants to achieve,” Garza said. “I’ve said before, I didn’t come back to score points, and I didn’t come back to win awards. I’ve won awards. I did that last year. My main focus this year has been on winning games. Honestly, there’s a lot of noise around this team, and I just try to stay away from it, not let it bother me, just do what I do.”
That was his focus on Thursday.
Everything, he said, takes care of itself.
So Garza scored 17 in the first half against the Badgers, finishing with his seventh game of 30 points or more this season and 12th of his career.
“Honestly, my main focus was getting back to what I do,” Garza said. “That’s just playing as hard as I can, not worry about anything else, try to make the plays to help my team win.”
“I knew after he struggled a little bit in the last game, he was going to come out and just kill tonight,” said forward Joe Wieskamp. “You could tell his mindset in practice this week, and coming out on the floor tonight, that he was just going to kill everyone in front of him.”
There is a steadiness that goes with Garza’s game that is, perhaps, unappreciated. The game against Michigan State was his first in single digits since a 9-point game against San Diego State on Thanksgiving weekend of 2019. Since then, double digits have been the norm — he closed last season with 16 consecutive games of 20 or more points in Big Ten games, the longest streak in conference play since 1987. Garza reached the 2,000-point mark — he has 2,103 now — in 113 games, the fastest of any Big Ten player in the last 25 seasons.
“I guess you look at it from a numbers perspective,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “That’s the only way you can compare someone from one era to another, when you say, okay, he got to 2,000 points quicker than anybody else in the last 25 years. Think about who’s playing in this league the last 25 years, some pretty incredible players. So that’s an amazing statement when you think about it.
“And then I see those pundits who want to say that, well, this game doesn’t translate to the NBA or this or that. I don’t know what does, because to me, they still have a scoreboard in the NBA. But he also rebounds, he shoots a high percentage, he’s a winning player, he’s a character guy with leadership skills, constantly works on his weaknesses. He’s been a much better defender, and is a much better defender, than what anybody gives him credit for.”
Garza said earlier in the week that he is a “basketball nerd,” one who likes to consume history, so he knows plenty about what Marble did in his career at Iowa.
Marble’s record is what is ahead of Garza, and he appreciates how he got to this point.
“Obviously I know what an honor it would be to pass a guy like Roy Marble,” Garza said. “He’s a legend, a Hawkeye great, and he’s paved the way for so many guys who have put on this uniform and represented this university. It definitely would be an honor. When you look at that, it just speaks to the countless teammates I’ve had who have made me look good over my career. As a post guy, you need to have great guards to feed you the ball and put you into positions to score.I think they’ve made me look good for the years I’ve been here.”
It is likely that Garza will want to get the record chase done as quickly as possible on Sunday. Not because he wants the numbers for history, but more because he knows those numbers will help the Hawkeyes win.
Everything, you see, will take care of itself.
Photo: Iowa’s Luka Garza shoots during Thursday’s game at Wisconsin. (Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com)