By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Let me start by saying that Dayton forward Obi Toppin is a remarkable basketball player, sort of a modern-day Connie Hawkins.
A 6-foot-9 forward with gravity-defying skills, Toppin figures to be an NBA lottery pick as a sophomore, and his game seems tailor-made for the NBA.
He was spectacular for Dayton this past season, averaging 20 points and 7.5 rebounds per game for a team that finished 29-2 overall. Toppin also shot 63 percent from the field and 39 percent from 3-point range.
But his performance still didn’t match what Iowa junior center Luka Garza accomplished in 31 games.
And that’s why Garza should have been named the Associated Press Player of the Year instead of being the runner-up to Toppin by 10 votes.
Dayton fans will immediately dismiss me as a Hawkeye homer, and I get it.
I probably am a little biased where Garza is concerned, but that partly is due to having watched him endure the 20-game Big Ten grind in spectacular fashion.
The 6-11 Garza overcame constant double and triple-teams against some of the best opponents in the country, and did so with a depleted roster that sometimes only had seven recruited scholarship players.
From a statistical standpoint, Garza has the edge over Toppin in both scoring and rebounding. Garza led the Big Ten in scoring with a 23.9 per-game average, and also averaged 9.8 rebounds per game.
Garza scored at least 20 points in each of the final 16 regular-season games, and he is one of three Big Ten players to finish with at least 740 points and 305 rebounds in a single season. The others are 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 Reggie Evans had 18 in 2002. 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.
The case for Garza goes far beyond statistics, however.
Where Garza really separates himself from Toppin is level of competition, and that should mean something when picking the national player of the year.
It sure seems to mean a lot when voting for the Heisman Trophy.
No disrespect to the Atlantic 10 Conference, in which Dayton is a member, but it pales in comparison to the Big Ten as shown in the final AP top-25 poll.
Six Big Ten teams were ranked in the final poll, including Iowa at No. 25, while Dayton was the only team from its conference to be ranked.
Imagine Garza feasting on Dayton’s conference schedule, and then imagine Dayton having to withstand the Big Ten grind.
Dayton finished 18-0 in conference play, and that certainly deserves praise.
But Dayton’s perfection came against teams that included LaSalle, St. Bonaventure, Duquesne and Fordham, whereas Garza faced ranked opponents almost on a weekly basis.
There were times this season when the Big Ten had as many as 10 teams ranked in the top 25.
Iowa's 2019-20 schedule was ranked fifth by ESPN in strength of schedule, while Dayton's schedule was ranked 102nd overall. That's a huge difference that can't be ignored.
Iowa also had to overcome the loss of two starters to injuries, including senior point guard Jordan Bohannon, who only played in 11 games before shutting it down in December to have hip surgery.
Bohannon is one of the top clutch shooters in the collegiate ranks, and he is also Iowa’s career leader in 3-point field goals with 284.
So his loss was significant on offense, and yet, Garza still found a way to almost alwasy be dominant.
Iowa's 76-70 loss at lowly Nebraska in which the Hawkeyes only made 4-of-33 shots from 3-point range, probably cost Garza in this case because it was a bad loss. But Garza still finished with 18 rebounds, 16 points, two assists and one steal in that game.
Garza already has won several national player of the year awards, but the Associated Press award is considered special, and he deserved to win it for reasons that seem pretty obvious.
AP Player of the Year voting
Name, school, votes
Obi Toppin, Dayton (34)
Luka Garza, Iowa (24)
Markus Howard, Marquette, (3)
Udoka Azubuike, Kansas (2)
Payton Pritchard, Oregon (2)