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Once overweight and unwanted, Iowa’s Luke Garza has become one of the Big Ten’s biggest stars

If you think about going to places like Hawaii for summer vacation as a high school student, it probably means more time on the beach than the basketball court, and working on your tan more than your jump shot. Then again, most high school kids don’t have fathers like Frank Garza.

Not that Luka Garza didn’t have any down time on three trips while he was at the Maret School, a small private school in Washington. But much of those vacations were spent getting Garza in shape. Despite being 6 feet 11 and 265 pounds, he had no major college offers after his sophomore year.

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Chuck Driesell recalled seeing Garza play for the first time the summer before his junior year at a tournament in Bowie sponsored by Garza’s Amateur Athletic Union team, Team Takeover. Driesell, son of Hall of Fame coach Lefty Driesell, had just taken the job at Maret and wanted to meet Garza.

“He was heavy. He really didn’t get up and down the floor really well," Driesell said Tuesday. "I remember seeing [Virginia assistant] Jason Williford, and I asked him, ‘What do you think?’ He said, ‘He just doesn’t move well enough right now.’ I thought he’s got great hands, he had a really good feel for being in the post, he had a good-looking shot.”

What became sort of the younger Garza’s private basketball boot camp was organized by his father and run by his father’s college coach at Idaho, Bill Trumbo.

In the course of a month of three-a-day workouts — including running everything from 200-meter sprints to several miles, doing agility work and conditioning drills on a football field, and training on the basketball court — Garza dropped 30 pounds.

“I was just coming off a surgery and I was on the heftier side,” Garza recalled Thursday after practice at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, where the Hawkeyes (10-5, 1-3 Big Ten) will play No. 12 Maryland (13-2, 3-1) on Friday. “This was about losing weight and getting more athletic. I knew I had to take a step athletically to play at the next level.”

Though Garza lost the weight, he never lost his drive. During a trip last summer to Bosnia, where his mother was born, Garza worked out with his uncle, Teoman Alibegović, who played at Oregon State with Gary Payton, as well as with two of his older cousins, who play professionally in Italy.

It has led to the now 260-pound junior center becoming the biggest revelation in the Big Ten. Garza leads the conference in scoring (22.1) and is second in rebounding (10.7). Along with Michigan State guard Cassius Winston, Garza is perhaps the most important player to his team in the league, and possibly in the country.

Garza has been held to single digits only once for Iowa, scoring just nine points in an 83-73 loss to then-unranked (now No. 7) San Diego State in the Las Vegas Invitational. He has scored at least 20 points nine times, 30 or more three times, and had a career-high 44 in a 103-91 loss at Michigan last month.

It was the most points ever scored by an opposing player at the Crisler Center and the third most by a Hawkeye, the most since Joe Johnson put up a school-record 49 nearly 50 years ago. Iowa coach Fran McCaffery doesn’t think Garza has exceeded his own expectations from the player he saw in high school.

“He is a guy who, when he said he was coming, I thought he could score 2,000 points. He’s that good,” McCaffery said.

Iowa's Luka Garza (55) reacts after scoring against Texas Tech during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Nov. 28, 2019, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Iowa's Luka Garza (55) reacts after scoring against Texas Tech during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Nov. 28, 2019, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher) (John Locher/AP)

An accidental find

Most major conference programs passed on Garza, believing he was too heavy and slow to even be a contributor on a high-level Division I team. Maryland was one of them, despite Lefty Driesell pleading with Terps coach Mark Turgeon to take him.

McCaffery was the only major college coach to offer a scholarship before Garza’s junior year, having seen him play in a couple of summer camps only because his own son, Connor, was attending them as well. By the time Garza was named to the all-star team at the NBA Top 100 camp in Charlottesville, Virginia, before his senior year, Garza was committed.

“At the end of the summer after his junior year, the whole world wanted him,” McCaffery said. “He was dominant. I remember sitting in a gym in Vegas the last day of the recruiting period on the last day of July, and he was as good as anybody I’ve ever recruited. And I recruited Kobe Bryant. He was that good, that day.”

Said Garza: “The loyalty that came from just getting to know Coach Fran was the reason I came here. Through it all, I knew he had been there and watched me so many times and he knew my game better than any other coach. When the bigger schools came, I was kind of thinking about it, but I knew where home was.”

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Frank Garza can understand why most high-level programs passed on his son.

“Luka’s a certain kind of player. His basketball IQ must overcome [a lack of natural] talent, quickness and jumping ability,” the elder Garza said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “Anytime he’s on the court, he’s the worst athlete out there. He has to rely on other things — intangibles, hard work, fundamentals.”

McCaffery doesn’t completely agree with the elder Garza’s assessment.

“I understand his point. There are better athletes out there a lot of the time,” McCaffery said. “But he is a gifted athlete in the sense that he has a keen sense of his body, spacing, angles, what’s going on around him. He’s not the fastest guy, but he runs hard every time and he often is the first guy down the floor.

"He has a tenacity about everything he does. He’s constantly thinking and making decisions. And he’s got a really good sense of getting to the next play if he misses a shot or turns it over. He’s gets to the next play immediately and is trying to beat the guy who’s lined up in front of him.”

Chuck Driesell, who played for his father at Maryland and later was a college coach for both the elder Driesell, as well as Gary Williams, before becoming a Division I coach at The Citadel for six seasons, said that Garza’s work ethic stands out.

“Luka is probably the hardest-working kid I’ve ever coached,” Driesell said. “I’ve been around a lot of good players, and a lot of good, hard-working players. He surpasses them. I give him a lot of credit, and Frank’s got to take a lot of credit for that. It’s rubbed off on him.”

Said Garza: “He’s my role model as well as my coach and father. He’s my best friend. He drives me and pushes me harder than anybody else. He knows my capabilities. Even when I’m unsure, he pushes me because he knows what I’m capable of. Without him, I don’t know where I’d be."

Driesell doesn’t believe Garza is motivated by past snubs.

“He’s one of the most unselfish basketball players I’ve ever coached. He’s one of the nicest kids I’ve ever met. I’ve got two daughters, and I would love for them to find a guy like him. He is just the most humble guy. He was the best teammate to the other guys the two years I had him at Maret.

"He’s really got his head on straight. He really know what he wants.”

A breakout season

Connor McCaffery, who now starts for the Hawkeyes, said that he is “maybe a little bit” surprised how well Garza has done this season.

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“But honestly, not as much as everyone else is,” the younger McCaffery said Thursday. “I know how hard he works. He’s in the gym all the time. The situations he’s been in, not that he ever shoots a shot and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, I can’t believe he made that.’ He’s getting to his spots and he’s shooting good shots.”

Even Turgeon has come to appreciate what Garza has done with the Hawkeyes.

“It’s really great to see. We’ve kind of watched him grow up in the area,” Turgeon said after practice Thursday in College Park. “He’s playing at a high level. He’s a hard matchup because he works so hard. He posts hard, he’s got a great shot fake, step-throughs, all kinds of moves. Left hand, right hand. Plus, he can shoot the 3.”

With point guard Jordan Bohannon hampered by a hip injury that sidelined him after the first 10 games, and forward Tyler Cook, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, turning pro early, Garza, a starter his first two years who averaged 12.6 points and 5.5 rebounds per game, knew the Hawkeyes would make him the focal point this season.

He believed he was ready.

“I think this summer I prepared myself for this moment,” Garza said. “I knew what we had, what lost and what we were possibly losing with ‘JBo’ [Bohannon]. I knew I had to step up. I worked so hard this summer to be ready for this moment. Also, to be mentally strong enough to be in that role, a step up for me, which I’m continuing to work on, being a better leader when we get in the tough moments."

No. 12 Maryland@Iowa

Friday, 7 p.m.

TV: Fox Sports 1

Radio: 105.7 FM, 980 AM

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