Less than a week from today -- Sunday, August 2 -- Luka Garza is scheduled to announce his decision about whether to remain in the 2020 NBA Draft or return to Iowa for his senior season in 2020-21. The NCAA's deadline for early-entry players to make that decision is Monday, August 3. To say Garza's decision is a big one or an important one feels hopelessly quaint.
Garza's decision will be the most important, most impactful decision related to Iowa basketball since... what? Landing Tyler Cook as a recruit? Landing Adam Woodbury as a recruit? The time a decade ago when Iowa cut ties with Todd Lickliter after three increasingly dismal seasons and chose Fran McCaffery to be its new head coach? The time, over 20 years ago now, when Bob Bowlsby decided to move on from Dr. Tom Davis? Garza's decision is so massive, of course, because of how good he's become (and how good he might yet be) and what his presence could mean for the Iowa team and the Iowa program, both in terms of his on-court presence and the off-court intangibles.
Garza went from "good college big man" to "one of the best players in all of college basketball" last winter, earning Big Ten Player of the Year and consensus All-America honors. He was a a scoring machine, an unstoppable force in the low post and an increasingly dangerous presence around the perimeter (39/109, 35.8% from deep). He set the Iowa single-season scoring record -- and he did that without even having the opportunity to play any Big Ten Tournament or NCAA Tournament games. He ended the season with 16 consecutive games with at least 20 points and damn near averaged a double-double for the season (23.9 ppg, 9.8 rpg). The rest of the Big Ten had few, if any, answers for Garza last season.
If Garza returns to Iowa, then Iowa has a chance to essentially run back its 2019-20 team, with a healthy Jordan Bohannon and Jack Nunge taking the place of Bakari Evelyn and Ryan Kriener. Last year's Iowa team ended the season 5th in offensive efficiency (per KenPom), so bringing back almost all of that offense while adding a full season's worth of the program's best-ever three-point shooter (Bohannon) is a pretty intoxicating possibility. With Garza, next year's Iowa team could have an absolutely lethal inside-out combination and a truly staggering ability to put the ball in the bucket. (There would be defensive concerns, of course, but that's a discussion for another day.)
And that's just the on-court dimension of a potential Garza return. Outside of what he means to Iowa in terms of x's and o's -- and consistent 20-point, 10-rebound performances -- Garza's return would also be significant in terms of the spotlight it would bring to the Iowa program as a whole. Garza would enter the season as the preseason favorite for national player of the year honors. Iowa would be a preseason favorite to win the Big Ten, a virtual lock to be in the preseason top 5 (or 10), and a trendy pick to make the Final Four. Iowa would be all over college basketball websites and magazines. The Hawkeyes would undoubtedly see plenty of games on ESPN, as opposed to the token appearances they've had on the network in recent years. In sum, there would be no shortage of buzz about Iowa basketball next season.
What could all that attention mean not just for next year's team, but for the Iowa program several years down the road? How much good could seeing Iowa in significant, nationally-televised games, contending for (and hopefully winning) a Big Ten championship, or making a (hopefully deep) run in the NCAA Tournament do for Iowa's recruiting? Fran McCaffery has made a lot of hay with off-the-radar recruits, but there's a ceiling to how good you can be with that approach, especially in a league as stacked as the Big Ten. Getting more first-choice prospects, more blue-chip recruits is what Iowa needs in order to more consistently contend, both in league play and in March.
Garza's decision isn't an easy one, though; if it was, it likely would have been made months ago. The chance to return to Iowa and potentially make program history while seeking individual and team glory alongside friends that have been made over his three years in Iowa City is a very enticing prospect, as Luka and his father, Frank Garza, have mentioned on several occasions. At the same time, professional basketball windows don't stay open forever and as a prospect Garza may be at his peak of desirability. If he returns, we won't know for sure that his performance next season will be as good or better than it was this past season. He's not a lock to be a first round pick in the NBA Draft (again, if he was, this decision likely would have been made long ago) and he may never be, as his lack of elite athleticism fails to offset his prodigious production in eyes of NBA scouts. But he's also garnered significant interest from professional teams abroad, and while those offers are available now, it's not a certainty that similar offers will still be available a year from now.
Back in March, when the season abruptly ended, my feeling was that Garza would return to Iowa for his senior season. The possibility of being taken in the NBA Draft was too remote, compared to the potential for a truly memorable, legend-making senior year at Iowa. A lucrative offer to play in Europe was no doubt enticing, but not enough to sway Garza away from another season in Iowa City. My confidence in Garza's return has dipped with each subsequent month, though, and it has little to do with any increased interest in Garza from the professional ranks (as best I can tell, nothing has really changed on that front since March). My lack of confidence stems from the fact that there may not be a senior season for Garza to return to this winter.
In March, it didn't seem possible that our Covid-fueled nightmare would be worse heading into August than it was heading into April. But that's the unfortunate reality we're living in right now. So when Frank Garza tweets messages like this, it makes me nervous about the prospect of Luka returning to Iowa.
#Hawkeyes, during the podcast with @DavidEickholt I stated just how difficult this decision is & how #55 is not doing well.He loves his coaches, team, UofI, Iowa, & believes we can win it all but based on COVIDs rise, & lack of social distancing, the season is in jeopardy.#mask https://t.co/AJWazETkyF pic.twitter.com/wS4jqODZj1— Frank Garza (@frankgarza57) July 21, 2020
We're not winning the battle against coronavirus; in many places, it feels like we've stopped even trying to fight it. College sports are in real jeopardy this fall and winter sports could be in the same boat if the situation doesn't improve rapidly. Meanwhile, Garza only has a week left to make one of the most important decisions of his life. A week to decide if he thinks there really will be a college basketball season to play this winter.
I certainly hope college basketball is able to be played this winter and, selfishly, I hope Garza decides to return to Iowa for his senior season and that he has another monster year and leads Iowa to its best season in decades. But if he opts for the surer thing and decides to pursue professional opportunities instead, well, I won't blame him in the least. We'll know what that decision is in just a few days.