Luka Garza Portrait

Luka Garza

IOWA CITY, Iowa - Luka Garza made a promise when he signed his national letter of intent with Iowa’s basketball program in November of 2016. 

“I am grateful for the opportunity at Iowa and I will make the most of it,” he said. Over the next four seasons, Garza did more than hold up his end of the bargain. He leaves as the most decorated Hawkeye basketball player of all time. 

The 6-foot-11 center with the unquenchable work ethic locked up Consensus National Player of the Year honors on Tuesday. 

“It’s a blessing,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. 

The last brick in Garza’s legacy arrived when he was presented the Wooden Award Tuesday evening. That, along with the Naismith Award he received Saturday, are a college basketball player’s ultimate bookends. 

Dr. James Naismith invented the game of basketball. And John Wooden, the Wizard of Westwood, made UCLA a dominant force in the game with his Pyramid of Success. Now, Garza’s name will be linked to both men forever. 

“Naismith changed my life, and so many others by creating the game that so many love,” Garza said. 

Garza knows all about Wooden’s 10 NCAA titles in a 12-year period, including seven straight, and his Pyramid of Success that features things like competitive greatness, poise and confidence. 

“John Wooden was someone my grandfather was friends with, and someone who I was taught a lot about growing up,” Garza said. “I studied the Pyramid, and many of his books to try and become the teammate and player that could win a championship.” 

Luka’s list of awards this season is staggering. Among them are the Oscar Robertson Trophy, presented to college basketball’s top player by the United States Basketball Writers Association; the Associated Press National Player of the Year Award; the Lute Olson National Player of the Year Award; and the Senior CLASS Award. 

Garza was also a repeat winner of both the Pete Newell Award and the Kareem Abbul-Jabbar Award, which goes to the nation’s top post player. Pretty good for a guy who was ranked as the 13th best center in the Class of 2017 according to ESPN 100. 

He was also a repeat winner of the NABC Division I Player of the Year Award. Entering the 2019-20 season, the men’s program at Iowa had had just two consensus All-Americans in its history - Murray Wier in 1948 and Chuck Darling in 1952. Garza did it in back-to-back seasons. And just three players had been named Big Ten Player of the Year - Wier in 1948, Darling in 1952 and Sam Williams in 1968. Garza went back-to-back there as well. 

All this from a guy who was the nation’s 111th best prospect in the final Rivals ranking in April of 2017. ESPN had him at 100. But he leaves as No. 1. 

“I can’t thank Coach (Fran) McCaffery and his staff enough for their role in helping me develop on and off the floor,” Garza said. “I have had amazing teammates along the way, and I would not be here without them.” 

His 2,306 career points are also No. 1, ending a 32-year reign at the top by the great Roy Marble. Garza’s statistical accomplishments go on forever. But one of the most impressive is this: He is the only player in Big Ten history to score at least 2,250 points and grab 900 rebounds. 

I always considered Garza and Megan Gustafson as basketball players cut from the same cloth.

Neither were chased by the game’s blue-bloods in the recruiting process. Neither got by with high-level athletic talent. Instead, both found success by working hard, and then turning it up a notch, to get where they wanted to go. 

Gustafson came to Iowa from tiny South Shore High School in Port Wing, Wis. ESPN rated her 83rd nationally, and the 12th best post player in her class. And like Garza, she left as the national player of the year and a two-time Big Ten Player of the Year after leading the nation in scoring and taking Coach Lisa Bluder’s Hawkeyes to the program’s first Elite Eight since 1993. Garza remembers the first time he saw Gustafson, doing the Mikan Drill in Iowa’s practice facility. Left hand, right hand, over and over again. A simple drill, but one that helped her become the best women’s player in college basketball in 2019. 

Garza followed a similar blueprint to get to the top of the college game. Hours and hours in the gym, far from crowds, adulation and interviews. 

Those two have enabled the University of Iowa to join some elite company. Gustafson won the Naismith Award in 2019. When Garza got the same award two seasons later, Iowa became just the sixth program to have a member of the men’s and women’s programs win a Naismith. It is the longest-standing player of the year award, starting in 1969 for men and 1983 for women. Virginia was the first to record the double dip. Ralph Sampson won three consecutive Naismith awards, starting in 1981. Dawn Staley was a back-to-back winner in 1991 and 1992. Notre Dame was next, with Austin Carr winning in 1971 and Ruth Riley in 2001. LSU also had a wide gap between winners Pete Maravich in 1970 and Seimone Augustus going back-to-back in 2005 and 2006. 

Clarissa Davis of Texas won the Naismith in 1987 and 1989. She’s since been joined by T.J. Ford in 2003 and Kevin Durant in 2007. 

Eight men’s players from Duke own a Naismith trophy - Johnny Dawkins (1986), Danny Ferry (1989), Christian Laettner (1992), Elton Brand (1999), Shane Battier (2001), Jay Williams (2002), J.J. Redick (2006) and Zion Williamson (2019). Lindsey Harding won her Naismith in 2007. 

Just twice in the history of the award has a school celebrated a men’s and women’s winner in a three-season window. Duke’s Harding and Redick is one. Gustafson-Garza is the other. Gustafson and Garza have moved on to the record books. But the school’s publicity on a national stage is alive and well. 

Freshman guard Caitlin Clark introduced herself to the college game in 2020-21. You could say she took the game by storm. Athletes like Sue Bird, Kevin Durant, Megan Rapinoe and Bill Walton talked about her on social media. She averaged 26.6 points, 7.1 assists and 5.9 rebounds in her rookie season. 

“That 25 she dropped on Kentucky was mesmerizing,” ESPN’s Jay Bilas said after Iowa’s second-round NCAA victory. “She is fantastic.” 

Clark was named a first-team all-American by the WBCA, and was that organization’s co-freshman of the year with Paige Bueckers of Connecticut. Clark also won the prestigious Dawn Staley Award presented to the best all-around guard in the women’s game. “Those of us who pay attention to this game have known about her for some time, but the world is now getting to see what she can do on the biggest stages,” Staley said. “Caitlin is going to be a huge part of women’s basketball for a long time and I couldn’t be more proud that she’s a recipient of this year’s award.”

Bueckers became the first freshman to win the Naismith Award, and the seventh UConn player since 1995. Bueckers also captured the Wooden Award. But Clark will be a serious candidate for both awards moving forward. 

And if she can join Gustafson as a winner of the Naismith, that would put Iowa in rare company. Only Connecticut, Tennessee and Stanford have had multiple winners of the award.

When Garza accepted his AP National Player of the Year Award, recently, he said, “I’m so grateful I was able to play here and wear the Hawkeye across my chest for four years.”

Iowa fans will be able to rekindle memories of Garza when they look in the rafters of Carver-Hawkeye Arena for years to come. His No. 55 will be retired at a later date. Gustafson’s No. 10 was retired last year. Will Clark’s No. 22 join them in the future? I wouldn’t bet against it.