By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Ryan Kriener doesn’t remember the exact day, but he still vividly remembers what happened one day this past summer when he faced Luka Garza in a pickup game.
It’s fair to say that Garza had the upper hand in their matchup, so much so that Kriener was convinced after the scrimmage that the 6-foot-11 Garza was ascending to stardom right before his eyes.
“I think I kind of realized that he was not just taking a step to be a really good player, he was taking a step to be a special player,” Kriener said Thursday before practice. “Middle of the summer and we were playing open gym one day, and I’ve always kind of prided myself on being a pretty good interior defender and I just couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t do anything one day and he was making everything.
“I was like, wow, if he keeps this up, he’s going to be special. And he’s been having a hell of year this year for us, and I’m just really proud of him and all the work he’s put in.”
That same player who had his way with the 6-9 Kriener in the summer is now doing the same against opponents on a regular basis.
Garza leads the Big Ten in scoring with a 22.4 per-game average heading into Saturday game against Cincinnati at the United Center in Chicago.
He has been dominant and efficient at the same time, evident by his No. 4 ranking nationally in player efficiency ratings at 36.47, and is ranked sixth nationally in points per 40 minutes played at 29.8.
Garza’s 44-point performance at Michigan was the third highest single-game total in program history and that performance sort of had the same impact on the nation that the summer pickup game had on Kriener, as proof that Garza was special.
Garza might have to shoulder even more responsibility on offense now that senior guard Jordan Bohannon has shut it down for the season after having undergone hip surgery on Thursday.
Bohannon’s absence also should lead to more opportunities for Kriener, who is averaging 6.1 points and 4.2 rebounds per game.
And with defenses designed to contain Garza near the basket, the circumstances could be ideal for Kriener to shine on offense.
"Kriener is a guy that's going to obviously have an expanded role, and he should," said Fran McCaffery. "He's earned that. He's a leader. He's a senior. But he's also a guy that can score and has been really productive in big games."
Kriener is eager to feed off Garza's presence.
“Luka’s been getting a lot better at being able to sense the double team,” Kriener said. “He knows it’s coming now, unlike at the beginning of the year, where we were like, yeah, it might be coming. But now, in Big Ten play, he knows it’s coming.
“So he’s keeping his head up. He’s being a real good playmaker. And it’s been really good to see his game grow that way.”
Garza’s rise from being good to great is one of the top storylines in college basketball, and Kriener saw it coming during the dog days of summer.
Kriener saw it coming up close and personal on a daily basis. He and Garza would compete and challenge each other in workouts, and in pickup games, and sometimes, it would get rough and physical, just like in real games where Garza already has had his lip stitched up without the use of pain medication and had a tooth knocked loose against Iowa State.
“We go at each other,” Kriener said. “You never try to get the other guy, but when you’re playing that hard, you’re definitely going to get some bumps and bruises and stuff like that.”
Garza’s toughness, and his tolerance for pain, has set the bar extremely high for his teammates.
Are they now expected to do the same thing if stiches are required during a game, or if a tooth gets knocked loose?
“I think we’d have to because if you don’t, you’re probably going to catch some flack from him afterwards, like, hey, what are you doing? I almost lost a tooth for Iowa State and I was out there in two minutes," Kriener said of Garza. “I guess it’s going to raise everybody’s toughness.”
Garza talked on Thursday about dealing with the pain from getting stitches without using medication to numb the area, and about the possibility of having oral surgery.
“There’s a lot of adrenaline going when you want to get back in the game,” Garza said. “It was pretty painful. You could feel it going in and out.
“But at that point, you’re not really worried about anything else. Just scream a couple times and you’re back in the game.”
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said there is no secret to Garza’s toughness, or to what lengths Garza will go to in order to play.
“You either have that in you or you don’t,” McCaffery said. “With him, it’s never a thought that he wouldn’t come back in. Others are going to go out and stay out.
"Truthful, in both cases, I’m not sure anyone would have blamed Luka. I don’t know of many guys that get their lip stitched back together without any pain mediciation. That’s a different kind of person right there.”
As for his ascent to stardom, Garza didn’t necessarily have one moment this past summer that convinced him it was about to happen, but he saw his game and his confidence both improve on a daily basis.
Garza saw his countless hours of hard work and sacrifice pay off to where in the summer he sort of saw himself flirting with stardom this season. Garza knew he would have to play a bigger role as a scorer, and as a leader, especially with with power forward Tyler Cook having moved on to professional basketball after leading Iowa in scoring and rebounding as a junior last season.
“I definitely was getting to a point with my game, especially this summer, where I kind of was seeing myself step up into this role,” Garza said. “I’ve always been real comfortable scoring on the block, but now when I added a lot of strength, I was playing with a lot of confidence and shooting the ball well, and everything like that.
“I just have an extreme confidence that I can score on any defender you put on me. So that’s just kind of the mentality I have. I’ve always worked on my game and have so many moves that I can pull out at any point. And I continue to add new ones as much as I can to try and be as un-guardable as much as I can.”
Garza knows the challenge of replacing Bohannon won’t fall to one player, but to a group of players.
Bohannon’s medical procedure went well on Thursday, according to McCaffery, and now it’s just a matter of adjusting to being without one of the greatest clutch shooters in program history.
“People just got to step up and adjust to playing without him,” Garza said. “It’s going to be tough at first, but we’ve got guys who are ready.”
If anyone knows about being ready, it's Luka Garza.