By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – An Iowa men's basketball season that ended too soon, and under unimaginable circumstances, still is fresh in our minds.
Iowa was a lock to make the NCAA Tournament, and would’ve played a first-round game either on Thursday or Friday, and would’ve done so with the National Player of the Year leading the way in 6-foot-11 junior center Luka Garza.
Iowa’s depleted squad of over-achievers had shown that it could beat just about anybody on a good day, so there was reason for excitement heading to postseason, especially with Garza having one of the greatest single-season performances in school history.
But then the world was turned upside down by a global pandemic, and now we’re left with wondering what would’ve happened in the postseason.
We’re left only with memories from a regular season in which Garza and his cohorts defied the odds.
Here are seven player-related things that were crucial to Iowa’s success:
1. Luka Garza’s dominance: You have to start with Garza because what he did this season truly was extraordinary, something we might never see again.
Garza already has been named the National Player of the Year by several news outlets, including ESPN and the Stadium, making him the first Iowa men’s player to earn that distinction.
He led the Big Ten in scoring since November and scored at least 20 points in each of his final 16 games. And only once was Garza held below double figures.
Garza finished the season with 740 points and 305 rebounds, and is one of just three Big Ten players to ever total at least 740 points and 300 rebounds in a single-season. The others Purdue's Glenn Robinson in 1994 and Purdue's Joe Barry Carroll in 1979).
Garza also ranked second nationally with 12 20-point/10-rebound performances, 20-point games (25); third in total field goals made (287) and points per 40 minutes played (29.8), fifth in scoring (23.9), 10th in 30-point games (5), 19th in double-doubles (15) and offensive rebounds per game (3.58), and 34th in rebounding (9.8). His 15 double-doubles are third most in a single-season by a Hawkeye in three decades and the most since 2002 (Reggie Evans, 18).
Garza averaged 26.7 points, 11.1 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks in 12 games against AP ranked opponents in 2019-20, including recording 11 straight 20-point performances, the longest streak by any player since UConn's Kemba Walker in 2011.
Combine all of those statistics with Iowa having exceeded expectations with a 20-11 record and Luka Garza’s junior season will be cherished by fans forever.
"It's really hard to do in this league, knowing the quality of coach that we're going up against and the things that they're doing to stop him, and it just doesn't seem to affect him in any way,” Fran McCaffery said near the end of regular season. “He continues to get better with his ability to play out of a double-team in terms of making plays for other people, and if he's having an off day shooting, he's going to be all over the glass. He's just going to keep coming. Special character – it takes special character to consistently perform the way he does and an incredible amount of maturity to approach the game every day the way that he does."
2. Connor McCaffery’s efficiency: The son of Iowa coach Fran McCaffery finished the season with 193 points, 124 rebounds, 124 assists and just 27 turnovers.
According to @collegebb_ref, Connor is the only player nationally dating back to 1993 to finish a season with at least 120 assists, 120 rebounds, 175 points, 25 steals and 27 or fewer turnovers.
Connor McCaffery took what could’ve been a potentially awkward situation as the head coach’s son and made it work almost to perfection.
He struggled with his shot at times, but Connor wasn’t asked to score a lot of points, and always has been a willing passer, dating back to his high school days.
The fact that Connor McCaffery stands at least 6-5 and weighs over 200 pounds also makes him a valuable defender who can guard multiple positions.
And as a passer, Connor is one of the best to play for Iowa in years. His ability to feed the post players in ideal scoring positions was a big factor in Garza’s success.
Connor does the little things that often go unnoticed, but not by opposing coaches, who described him as Iowa’s rock, or as the glue to the team this season.
“I think he sees it the way you want everybody to see it,” Fran McCaffery said of his son. “He plays at his pace and doesn't force anything. He waits. He analyzes. He starts with a knowledge of, who do we have? What are they doing against us?”
3. C.J. Fredrick’s all-around game: You figured he would help Iowa as a 3-point shooter, and as a ball handler when needed.
But the Cincinnati, Ohio native was so much more than that as a redshirt freshman.
Fredrick did help as a 3-point shooter, making 47 treys in 25 games, but he also had 69 assists, 17 steals, and even five blocks.
He also showed a willingness to take big shots, and that was needed after senior point guard Jordan Bohannon shut it down in December because of a hip injury.
4. Joe Toussaint’s attitude: The Bronx, N.Y. native showed flashes of brilliance, but also struggled at times, which is typical for a freshman, especially at point guard.
There were times when Toussaint struggled early in games and then was benched for extended periods.
But he never pouted or made excuses, or showed any negative body language.
He just kept grinding and waiting for his next chance to shine.
Fran McCaffery showed his faith in Toussaint by leaving him in the starting lineup throughout the season after Bohannon had stopped playing.
And while Toussaint was inconsistent on offense, his defense never suffered because of it. His ability to pressure the ball at the point of attack was crucial to Iowa’s success.
“You forget, sometimes, how young he is, because he's so good in some areas and he'll make a couple mistakes and that would linger on, which it usually does when you're young,” Fran McCaffery said. “Now he's able to get to the next play a little bit better.
“The other thing is, his defense isn't predicated upon his success on offense, I think that's a critical component of any young player, of any good player, for that matter. No matter what's happening on the offensive end you have to be really good at the other end. So I'm really proud of him there.”
5. Joe Wieskamp’s unselfishness: The Muscatine native went from testing the NBA Draft process last spring, and from being the face of the Iowa team heading into the season, to playing second fiddle to Garza.
Wieskamp also had stretches where he struggled on offense, but he never let it affect the rest of his game, or his team-first attitude.
And he seemed genuinely happy for Garza’s success, which says a lot about Wieskamp’s character.
6. Bakari Evelyn’s patience: He came to Iowa as a graduate transfer, but probably knowing that he wouldn’t start, especially with a healthy Bohannon, who played in 10 games before shutting it down.
Evelyn played no more than 17 minutes in the first 11 games, and he played 10 or fewer minutes in five of the first 11 games, including just seven minutes against Iowa State.
But he never complained or became a distraction.
Instead, Evelyn accepted his role and just kept working and waiting for his chance to contribute, which came down the stretch of the regular season.
“Even early in the year when we were moving him around and it probably wasn't the thing that he was excited about, he just accepted it and did whatever we asked him to do to help us win,” Fran McCaffery said. “That's who he is. And little by little, he's had some great games for us. I mean, just tremendous.
“And games where he hasn't scored as much, he's been rock solid as a point guard or as a defender. He has the ability to play through a mistake, which veteran guys typically do. But he's been a great fit in that locker room, and that's obviously really critical.”
7. Ryan Kriener's moxie: The senior forward from Spirit Lake never has lacked for confidence, and he played with an edge.
Kriener's teammates, and the Iowa fans, seemed to feed off his toughness, and off his willingness to compete and express himself.
No challenge or moment was too big for Kriener.
He didn't always succeed, but it was never due to a lack of effort, toughness or confidence.
"Even when he was a freshman, you'd put him in and he would just go after it," Fran McCaffery said. "He might make some mistakes, he might miss some shots, but he wasn't nervous. He was aggressive, had an aggressive mindset at both ends of the floor, and those guys are incredibly valuable, obviously."