By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Luka Garza got what he deserved on Monday when the Big Ten Conference named him its Player of the Year.
There were some other intriguing candidates that deserved consideration, including Maryland forward Jalen Smith and Michigan State point guard Cassius Winston.
But if you combine individual statistics with team success and overcoming adversity and expectations, the 6-foot-11 Garza is the clear choice as the conference’s top player.
Iowa’s junior center has been the driving force behind a team that was considered an NCAA bubble team at best heading into the season, and that was with a healthy Jordan Bohannon and Jack Nunge.
Iowa has played most of the season with just eight recruited scholarship players, and with only seven in the four games without freshman guard C.J. Fredrick, and yet, Garza and his cohorts still are seeded fifth heading into the Big Ten Tournament, and a lock to make the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row.
There are so many statistics that help to describe Garza’s dominance this season, from scoring over 700 points to break the school single-season record that stood for a half century to scoring at least 20 points in 16 consecutive Big Ten games to averaging 26.7 points and 11.1 rebounds per game in 12 games against ranked opponents.
Iowa lost three of its last four Big Ten regular-season games, but that wasn’t enough to punish Garza in this case.
Iowa finished 11-9 in the Big Ten, three games behind conference tri-champions Maryland, Michigan State and Wisconsin.
And while it has certainly been a team effort, Garza’s durability, determination, endurance and skills have impacted the team in ways that can’t even be measured.
Nothing against his teammates, but it’s hard to see Iowa without Garza scoring between 20 and 30 points per game, and grabbing about 10 rebounds per game, as an NCAA-caliber team.
Garza is the first Iowa player to win the Big Ten Player of the Yard award, which was introduced in 1985, and the first Hawkeye in 52 years to be named the most valuable player in the conference.
Sam Williams was named the Chicago Tribune Big Ten Most Valuable Player in 1968.
Former Hawkeyes Murray Weir and Chuck Darling also won the Chicago Tribune MVP award in 1947 and 1952, respectively.
But that’s it, just four players, and the first in 52 years.
The Rollings Stones still were in their infancy the last time a Hawkeye was recognized as the top player in the conference.
Garza has treated us to an individual season that ranks among the best at Iowa in any sport.
He has gone from being a good player as a freshman and sophomore to a dominant player as a junior.
A strong case also could be made for Garza to be named the National Player of the Year, but you wonder if Iowa’s 11 losses will cost him in this case.
It didn’t cost Garza in the Big Ten because no team had fewer than six conference losses.
Big Ten teams have spent all winter beating up on each other, and will continue to do so at the conference tournament, which has Iowa playing the winner of Wednesday’s game between Minnesota and Northwestern on Thursday in Indianapolis.
Garza’s season has been sort of similar to what Shonn Greene did as an Iowa running back in 2008.
Greene rushed for at least 100 yards in all 13 games and won the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s top collegiate running back.
Iowa also won nine games that season with Greene leading the way.
But Garza’s situation is also different in that he had played extensively during his first two seasons at Iowa, whereas Greene had played some a true freshman for the Iowa football team before leaving school to attend junior college and then returning.
Garza has stayed the course, kept grinding and seized the opportunity that came when Tyler Cook decided to skip his senior season to pursue a professional career.
The 6-9 Cook was almost always Iowa’s first option on offense in each of the past two seasons, and probably would’ve been again this season if he had returned.
Cook’s departure led to a bigger role for Garza on offense, and to say that Garza has taken advantage of the situation would be an understatement.
Garza in the span of about four months has become a Hawkeye legend, and his story still has more chapters to write.
Garza has been so impressive this season that it’s reasonable to think that he would at least test the NBA Draft process this spring.
Iowa sophomore guard Joe Wieskamp, who was named third-team All-Big Ten on Monday, did it last spring before choosing to return to college.
But that stuff can wait with the conference tournament looming.
Iowa already has accomplished enough to make the NCAA Tournament, but how it performs in the conference tournament will impact its seed.
Garza plays for a program that hasn’t advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16 since 1999.
So to end that drought would enhance his legend even more.