Iowa’s Garza builds case for national honors

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  • College football reporter.
  • Joined ESPN.com in 2008.
  • Graduate of Northwestern University.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Iowa teammates Luka Garza and Joe Toussaint watched Dayton’s 76-51 win over George Washington in their hotel room Saturday night.

They were impressed by Obi Toppin, the Flyers’ star and Garza’s primary competition for national player of the year, who had seven dunks in scoring 27 points on the national stage. On Sunday, Garza countered Toppin with 28 points and eight rebounds, and played all but three seconds for No. 18 Hawkeyes against No. 23 Illinois.

Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn blocked Garza’s shot attempt with a second left, as the Illini prevailed 78-76 at the State Farm Center. But Garza strengthened his case for national honors with his 16th consecutive Big Ten game with 20 points or more, surpassing the streak of 15 games set by Purdue star Glenn Robinson in 1994. He averages nearly 27 points per game against AP Top 25 teams, and is the first Big Ten player to average more than 21.6 points in league play since 2000.

“If it was up to me, Luka’s Big Ten player of the year, Naismith winner of the year, college basketball player of the year,” Toussaint told ESPN. “If he doesn’t win all of these awards, then I’ll be surprised, to be honest with you. The kid, he’s just different. He plays hard, makes shots, he rebounds, plays defense, and the kid plays 40 minutes. Just plays hard the whole 40.”

Iowa guard Connor McCaffery thinks it’s a two-man race for national player of the year between Garza and Toppin, who averages 20 points and 7.5 rebounds for the third-ranked Flyers.

“Yes, I’m biased, but to me, it’s a no-brainer,” McCaffery said. “He has better stats, and he’s doing it in the Big Ten versus the A-10. That’s no disrespect to the A-10, but the Big Ten’s just a way better league, it’s not close. And Luka’s putting up better numbers in the Big Ten than he is in the A-10.

“I can see why they might reward [Toppin] because his team is ranked fourth or whatever, but to me, it’s no comparison. … Luka’s putting up ridiculous numbers, averaging 24 and 10, it’s stupid.”

Illinois coach Brad Underwood mentioned Michael Beasley, whom he helped coach at Kansas State, in assessing Garza’s dominance this season. Beasley averaged 26.2 points and 12.4 rebounds for Kansas State in 2007-08, when Underwood served as an assistant.

He finished second for the Wooden Award behind North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough. Underwood called Garza “my frontrunner” for national player of the year. Garza is aiming to become the first Iowa player to win the Wooden Award and the first from the Big Ten since Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky in 2015.

“I thought Purdue the other night did a unbelievable job of guarding him, and I looked at the box score and he had 26 [points] and [12 rebounds],” Underwood said. “He’s got to be at the top of those conversations. He’s probably at the forefront of our league as well, and when you’re the best player in the best league in the country, I would think he’d be right there.”

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said he never considered removing Garza from Sunday’s game. Garza came in averaging 31.7 minutes and has eclipsed 35 minutes in each of his last five games.

“Sometimes you have to take a step back and admire what he’s doing,” McCaffery said. “Very few guys can play with that level of intensity against that level of physicality for that long and continue to be effective. We’re just very fortunate to have him, and we’re going to utilize his talent and his tenacity, because it’s infectious to the rest of the team.”

Garza called Toppin “a tremendous player” and said he’s honored to be in the national conversation with the Dayton star. He also appreciates his teammates’ support in the race.

“That means the world to me,” he said. “That’s why I came to school. I love my teammates and the culture of this program. It’s the reason I work so hard to be out there and help my guys win.”

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