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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Luka Garza’s monster start propels surging Hawkeyes

Iowa center Luka Garza (55) grabs a rebound from Syracuse guard Buddy Boeheim (35) during an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019, in Syracuse, N.Y. (Dennis Nett / Post-Standard via AP)
By Luke Meredith Associated Press

IOWA CITY, Iowa – After losing multiple contributors from last season’s NCAA Tournament team, Iowa planned to lean on junior center Luka Garza more than ever in 2019-20.

Garza has responded with an All America-type start to the season.

The 6-foot-11 Garza enters Friday’s Big Ten opener at No. 4 Michigan (7-1) as the only Power Five player in the country averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds per game.

Garza is also shooting 56.8% from the floor and 50% on 3s, and he leads the Hawkeyes (6-2) – winners of five of six – in 10 different statistical categories.

“He’s taking a lot of shots. But he’s making them inside, making them from mid-range, making threes, and getting to the free throw line,“ Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said.

The Hawkeyes, typically a steady team in McCaffery’s 10 years in charge, have been rocked by roster upheaval since the end of last season.

Forward Tyler Cook left for the pros, underrated sixth man Nicholas Baer graduated and guard Isaiah Moss unexpectedly bolted to Kansas. Senior Jordan Bohannon, the team’s all-time leader in made 3s, had hip surgery he’s still trying to play through and starting forward Jack Nunge tore his ACL on Nov. 24 and was lost for the season.

All that chaos seemed to put the Hawkeyes in position for a lost season and a blowout loss at home to DePaul on Nov. 11 set off alarm bells.

Instead, Iowa is rolling – and Garza’s consistent play is by far the biggest reason why.

“It’s kind of that we’re going to him more. I don’t think there is anything that he hasn’t done before except that we don’t have Cook,” McCaffery said. “Jack got hurt so we’re playing differently and going to him.”

Garza, a three-year starter, averaged 13.1 points and 4.5 rebounds a year ago despite having a nine-pound cyst removed from his abdomen just prior to the season opener. But like a lot of young bigs, Garza struggled at times with foul trouble.

Garza followed up a five-game stretch last January in which he averaged over 21 points with a four-game run where he totaled just 16 points in part because fouls reduced his playing time and got him out of rhythm.

There has been none of that yet this year.

Garza has had just one game where he scored less than 10 points, putting up nine in an 83-73 loss to San Diego State on Friday in Las Vegas, and he’s grabbed at least eight rebounds in all eight games so far.

Garza was at his best in Tuesday’s 68-54 win at Syracuse. He scored 23 points on 9 of 15 shooting, had nine boards and knocked down the only 3 he took.

“I’ve just tried to reduce as many stupid fouls as I can,” said Garza, who has only 11 fouls this season. “It’s kind of been my focus going into theses games. Obviously we’ve got some injuries, so I’ve got to do a little more. I can’t be in foul trouble and on the bench.”

The Hawkeyes’ rotation might continue to be thin in the short term, with CJ Fredrick (quad) and Cordell Pemsl (back) questionable against the Wolverines. But the Hawkeyes, with Garza leading the way, have shown resilience despite their roster issues.

“The guys have stayed together and embraced the opportunity that some guys got to play more,” McCaffery said. “They’re confident in themselves. Players are confident in each other.”