IOWA CITY, Ia. - Luka Garza is returning to his roots Thursday. And he hopes to change his luck.
Iowa’s all-America center is from Washington, D.C., and his connections to Maryland’s basketball program run deep. Garza took part in Maryland basketball camps as a kid. He played AAU ball in grade school for 6th Man Sports, founded by Byron Mouton. Also the coach, Mouton was a member of Maryland’s 2002 NCAA championship team.
Garza’s coach at the Maret School was Chuck Driesell. Chuck’s dad, Lefty, was once the colorful head coach at Maryland.
“I grew up dreaming of playing college basketball in general,” Garza said. “I would have liked to have been recruited by Maryland. But that’s just the way it is.”
Coach Fran McCaffery spotted Garza early, and successfully recruited him to Iowa. And now, as Garza remains at the center of the National Player of the Year discussion, he’s got one more chance to win at Maryland as a collegian. He’s 0-2 for his career, getting in first-half foul trouble in both 2018 and 2020.
“I’ve had a couple of rough trips up there,” he said. “I’m going to try and be smart this time.” No. 5 Iowa, 3-1 in Big Ten play and 9-2 overall, is in search of a second straight road win. The Hawkeyes won at No. 15 Rutgers Saturday, 77-75.
Point guard Connor McCaffery sprained an ankle 3 minutes into that game, and didn’t return with the exception of checking in to make a crucial in-bounds pass in the final seconds.
“He’s doing pretty well,” Coach McCaffery said Tuesday. “Hopefully we’ll get him back out there.”
Connor’s ability to run the offense makes him a valuable piece of this team. And he’s a master at getting the ball to Garza on the block.
“He’s probably the best post-entry passer that I’ve ever played with,” Garza said. “It definitely impacts me when he’s not on the floor. It impacts us when he’s not on the floor. Hopefully his ankle starts to feel better and he’ll be able to play. As we’ve shown, the next man always steps up.”
With Connor out with the ankle, CJ Fredrick in first-half foul trouble and Joe Toussaint taking a finger to the eye that sent him to the sidelines, Coach McCaffery went deeper into his roster than he normally does on Saturday.
Making the most of the opportunity was freshman guard Ahron Ulis, who hadn’t played in the first three Big Ten games. But Ulis stepped up big time at Rutgers. He played more than 14 minutes, scoring two points, adding three rebounds and four assists. He also played solid defense.
“We had a nine-man rotation working,” Coach McCaffery said. “It’s always difficult when you’re a coach and you know you have a guy who is really good and wants to play and deserves to play. You try to find minutes when you can.”
That happened at Rutgers.
“The opportunity presented itself on Saturday with Connor going out and Joe getting poked in the eye and CJ getting in foul trouble, and you see what he’s capable of doing,” Coach McCaffery said. “He did things in that game that you would expect him to.”
Ulis stepped up big when his team needed him.
“You never know what’s going to happen going into a game,” Ulis said. “It’s always a great feeling going out there and getting a W. It’s a great feeling knowing you contributed.”
Garza said he was proud of Ulis for performing well when his number was called.
“He’s a really good player,” Garza said. “We have a lot of depth in the back court, so that makes it tough on him. But he got his opportunity and he took advantage of it.”
Ulis came to Iowa from Marian Catholic High School in Chicago Heights, Ill., where he was an all-stater and three-year starter.
He was very familiar with Iowa before the recruiting process even started. His older brother, Tyler, was a prep all-American who was courted by the Hawkeyes. When Tyler made his campus visit to Iowa, Ahron also made the trip.
“I had played with Patrick (McCaffery) in high school my freshman year, and Coach McCaffery was there and I talked to him after the game,” Ahron said. “ We’ve had a great relationship ever since then.”
Tyler, a Top 100 player in the Class of 2014, had Iowa among his final three schools along with Michigan State and Kentucky. He signed with the Wildcats, earning Southeastern Conference player of the year honors as a sophomore and then entering the NBA Draft.
When Ahron told his brother he had picked the Hawkeyes, Tyler told him he thought Iowa was a great school.
“It just worked out great,” Ahron said.
Tyler watched his little brother on television Saturday, and passed along his encouragement with a phone call after the game.
“He told me I had a good game, and that I went out there and made all the right plays and was ready when my name was called,” Ahron said.
Maryland is 6-5 overall and 1-4 in the Big Ten. Two of those conference losses were at home to Rutgers, 74-60, and Michigan, 84-73. The Terrapins are a guard-strong team that will test Iowa’s on-ball defense.
Three of the leading scorers - 6-5 Eric Ayala (14.3 points per game), 6-6 Aaron Wiggins (11.5) and 6-5 Hakim Hart (11.5), are guards. Forward Donta Scott, 6-7, averages 12.9 points and a team-best 7.3 rebounds.
The Terrapins are expected to be without 6-5 senior guard Darryl Morsell (7.7 points per game), who suffered a facial injury against Michigan Saturday.
“I’ve always been a big fan of Ayala,” Coach McCaffery said. “Wiggins was really good (in a 63-55 loss at Indiana Monday). He’s always been good, and one of the better players in our league last year.”