Without the abnormal circumstances that 2020 has brought, Luka Garza might have heard his name called by Adam Silver alongside other established college standouts in the 2020 NBA draft. Instead of navigating the increased uncertainty of the draft process, the Iowa star returns as the face of college basketball entering the 2020-21 season -- the 6-foot-11 big man tops ESPN's first top 25 player ranking of the season and is the preseason front-runner for every reputable national player of the year award.
Garza (23.9 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game, 36% from the 3-point line last season) also aims to make history in Iowa City, where the Hawkeyes haven't won a Big Ten title (1979) or reached the Final Four (1980) in more than 40 years. The Hawkeyes are a top-10 team entering the season, and with America's best player back in the fold, every ambition seems possible for this group.
Garza recently spoke with ESPN.com about the upcoming season, his expectations for himself and his team, his excitement about the 2020-21 campaign and a few wrinkles he hopes to add to his game:
Myron Medcalf, ESPN: How has your team handled the preseason buzz, including entering the season with a top-10 ranking?
Luka Garza, Iowa: When I was a freshman, we were 14-19 and we made a change. It has been awesome to see our growth since then, but for us right now, I think our main focus is just trying to improve day to day and not worrying about the ranking. I think later in life that's going to mean something more. But right now, we're just focused on improving as much as we can every single day to reach our potential as a team. And that's all we can do, and whatever that is, it'll work itself out. Every day I'm trying to push these guys to work as hard as they can, and starting [this] week, we're going to do the same things when we get on the floor.
ESPN: When you're watching film on other players at the next level, who are the models for you? Whom do you hope to emulate?
Garza: There's a lot of guys. Obviously, this summer, watching the NBA a lot then and the fall, I think Nikola Jokic was one guy I really locked into and was watching a lot. Just his versatility on the offensive end, his ability to pass the ball, score from all three levels. Offensively, looking at Anthony Davis and his versatility on the offensive end and his ability to shoot the ball and handle it and all that stuff is really fun to watch, as well as when he plays in the post. I try to take some of his moves.
I think, really, for me, I look at so many different players. Obviously, Frank Kaminsky from his senior year at Wisconsin. I've always watched film on him and tried to replicate what he did there. And obviously, I'm a big time old hoops guy, so I'm always watching guys like Jack Sikma and [Kareem Abdul-Jabbar] and different moves that I can add, especially with Kareem. I've been trying to work on the hook as much as I can this summer and this fall.
ESPN: Wait, are you saying that you're going to bring back the skyhook?
Garza: That would make my dad really happy. We've been working on it my whole life. It's kinda hard when you're getting double-teamed all the time. You don't really have the space to get it off. But I'm going to try to use it when I can, and it's such an effective move that if I can get it down, it really can help me.
ESPN: If you're a 40-year-old Iowa men's basketball fan -- or younger -- you've never seen a Big Ten title run or a Final Four appearance from the Hawkeyes. What would it mean to you and your team to end that drought?
Garza: It would mean the world to me and I know it would mean the world to all of our guys and the coaches and everybody in our community. I think we're really excited about this opportunity, and we know what it's going to take to be able to do that. We have a lot of experience on this team. We know what the Big Ten season is like and we know how consistent we're going to have to be. We know what we have to do. It's just about locking into those things, and hopefully we can get it done.
ESPN: You could do everything you did personally last season and still have a great season, but you've been working on your game. What will we see from Luka Garza during the 2020-21 season?
Garza: I think you'll see improvements on everything. I think I've been able to stretch my range a little bit further and I'll be able to shoot the ball with a little bit more consistency. I've definitely been working on my free throws, and hopefully, you'll see a much more improved me at the free throw line (Garza shot 65.1% from the line last season, down from 80.4% in 2018-19).
And also in the post, you'll see a variety of moves. Some of the ones you've seen before. You know, I've always added to my post game and I'm working on my fadeaway and different kinds of moves that are going to help me score. But you'll also see an improved passer out of the double-team, trying to find guys and pick apart defenses. You know you'll definitely see a guy who is still going to play as hard as he can and an improved guy on the defensive end, trying to block shots and help this team out as much as he can.
ESPN: You had the kind of season in 2019-20 that would have warranted a lot of awards had it not been for Obi Toppin's strong year. This year, people view you as the favorite to win every meaningful player of the year award. What is it like to be viewed that way after last year's disappointment?
Garza: It's an incredible feeling, and to be honest, it's a dream come true to be talked about in that way. But to be honest, my main focus going into this year is winning and it's why I came back. I came back to be a part of this team and see what we could do. So for me, if I don't get any of those awards and we win, that's all that's going to matter to me at the end of the day. But to be a guy who never dreamed of being in that conversation, and to be in that conversation two years in a row, is an incredible feeling. That's a lot of hard work that went into that. Like I said, winning is all that matters for me this year.
ESPN: You've talked about your emphasis on addressing the mental elements of the game with meditation and yoga. It seems as if this could be one of the more chaotic years in college basketball history. How important will it be for you and your Hawkeyes to be focused and disciplined?
Garza: It's critical for our team success that we're going to need to be a team that's really locked in, no matter what happens. I think coaches have tried to stress to us that we're just going to come in here, work as hard as we can every day, and when we have games, we're going to play them. We're going to play them to the best of our ability. And when games are canceled, we're going to work hard in practice. We can't let any of that affect us. We can't let it throw us off our rhythm or anything like that. That's just huge, so it's going to be a year where mental toughness and the ability to face adversity are going to be two of the qualities of the best team in the country. And I think our team has a lot of those qualities, and I think we're improving day to day to try to become one of those teams.
ESPN: Fill in the blank. If your team doesn't do "X," it won't reach its potential. What's the answer?
Garza: Defense. I think that's our biggest thing going into this year. That's what's going to make or break us. It's going to make us great or we're just going to be good. How good we can be on the defensive end is going to separate us from other teams. We already know going into this year that no one is going to be able to keep up with us offensively. But if we can get stops and we can really shut teams down, it's going to be hard for other teams to beat us.
We have so many weapons on the offensive end and we know our offense is always going to be there. When you have five, six, seven guys that at any time, they can score the ball and have confidence because they've scored the ball in the past, it's going to help us so much on that end. But on defense, that's what's going to make us who we are. Every single day we're working really hard and grinding and trying to improve on that end. Everyone is just focused on that because we know that's what it's going to take.