Monday’s announcement from the Big Ten that Iowa’s Luka Garza is its men’s basketball Player of the Year surprised no one. The surprise came earlier in the season, with Garza’s enormous increase in offensive production.
The junior center from Washington, D.C., went from 13.1 points per game last season to 23.9 this one, which ranks first in the conference and fifth nationally. He had 44 points at Michigan on Dec. 6, and has 13 games of at least 25. His career-high was 25 entering this season.
Garza was a first-team All-Big Ten player, obviously. Teammate Joe Wieskamp was on the third-teams of the coaches and media. Iowa guard CJ Fredrick is a member of the league’s All-Freshman team.
Garza spent the last offseason on a personal crusade to get in better shape. He lost weight but gained strength and stamina. He is 6-foot-11 and 260 or so pounds, but he played all but a few seconds while scoring 28 points in Iowa’s 78-76 loss at Illinois on Sunday night.
“I credit this offseason,” Garza told BTN Monday, “just going into it with really a determination and a motivation to improve, and I think I’ve tried to do that every single day, and just my teammates pushing me and my coaches pushing me.”
“He has a never-ending pursuit of excellence you just don’t often see,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said Monday.
“I’ve coached some really good players, but Luka Garza is unique.”
Garza became the first Hawkeye to win the league’s Player of the Year since the award was introduced in the 1984-85 season. Before that, the last Iowa player to be named the league’s Most Valuable Player — then determined by a 23-person panel commissioned by the Chicago Tribune that included all 10 league coaches and 10 other conference officials — was Sam Williams in 1968.
“Being the first Hawkeye to win this award in 52 years means the world to me,” Garza said. “That really hasn’t sunk in yet. You dream of moments like this. Without my family, my coaches, and my teammates, I would not be here. I am grateful to be in the situation that I am in that has allowed me to be the player I am.
“I am extremely thankful that we have a group of unselfish guys who are able to move the ball around, and get me the ball. ... That’s why I work so hard. I want to do it for them.”
Garza has scored at least 20 points in each of his last 16 games, the first player to do that in Big Ten play since Ohio State’s Dennis Hopson in 1987.
He is just the fourth player nationally since 2007 to total 700-plus points, 300-plus rebounds, 50-plus blocked shots and 35 3-pointers in a season. His 26.2-point average in Big Ten games is the most since Purdue’s Glenn Robinson averaged 31.1 in 1994.
He owns Iowa’s single-season record for points with 740, with a minimum of two games remaining.
“He has great players defending him, but he is defending great players as well, every night,” McCaffery said. “For the most part staying out of foul trouble, moving his feet, defending ball screens, fighting the post, and pretty much doing it without taking a rest. I don’t take him out much; he doesn’t want to be taken out. He wants to stay in there, and that is the most impressive thing.”
Garza was joined on the league’s coaches’ first-team all-conference squad by forward Jalen Smith and guard Anthony Cowan of Maryland, forward Lamar Stevens of Penn State, and guard Cassius Winston of Michigan State. The media had Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu
on the first team instead of Cowan.
Garza wasn’t named on the Big Ten’s 10-player preseason all-league team. Today, he is one of the top contenders for National Player of the Year.
“He has to be the National Player of the Year,” Indiana Coach Archie Miller said on Feb. 13.
Wisconsin’s Greg Gard is the Big Ten’s Coach of the Year. Maryland guard Aaron Wiggins is the Sixth Man of the Year. Michigan State forward Xavier Tillman the Defensive Player of the Year, and Illinois center Kofi Cockburn the Freshman of the Year.
Iowa begins Big Ten tournament play at approximately 1:30 p.m. (Iowa time) Thursday in Indianapolis against the winner of Wednesday’s Minnesota/Northwestern game.