A pair of Big Ten Player of the Year candidates will be battling in the post Sunday at Williams Arena when Iowa junior Luka Garza and Gophers sophomore Daniel Oturu meet for the second time this season.
The first time they played, back in the Big Ten opener on Dec. 9, Oturu was arguably the better player but Iowa was the better team. The Hawkeyes smothered the Gophers 72-52 despite Oturu’s 22 points on 10-of-12 shooting to go with 12 rebounds. Garza countered with a good-looking 21 and 10 as the Hawkeyes rolled in Iowa City.
The two bigs with NBA aspirations have enjoyed similarly impressive breakout seasons. Garza has upped his scoring from 13.1 as a sophomore to 23.7, which leads the conference in points. Oturu has raised his scoring average from 10.8 to 20.1 to place second in scoring behind Garza, and his 11.5 rebounds per game lead the conference. Both players have 13 double-doubles while gaining national recognition for their respective campaigns.
In the two months since their last matchup, both have proven they can hang in the physical Big Ten with scoring averages over 20 points. Garza, in particular, has averaged 26.2 over the last 10 conference games as No. 21 Iowa has gone 7-3. He scored a season-high 38 in Thursday’s loss at Indiana.
“So many times you watch Luka Garza play, and I kind of think, ‘Oh, Indiana did a pretty good job on him,’ and he had 38 points,” Pitino said. “He’s evolved into Ethan Happ with a jump shot, and that’s a great compliment because Happ was a great player obviously.
“[Garza] is a terrific, terrific player. He’s tough, he competes his butt off, he’s relentless with post-ups, he’s relentless running the court. He’s just absolutely maxing out. It’s taken some time with him, but he’s a really, really good player.”
After a well-documented offseason of hard workouts, Garza more than doubled his rebounding numbers from his sophomore campaign and has become a 39 percent 3-point shooter, second-best on the Hawkeyes behind C.J. Fredrick.
He and Oturu both appeared on the Late Season Top 20 list for the prestigious John R. Wooden Award. In a sport increasingly dominated by guard play, the two big centers remind Pitino of an era not long ago when big men controlled the floor.
“It’s a bit of a throwback, but I love to see it,” Pitino said. “It’s like a heavyweight fight.”
THE LAST MEETING
In late December after the Gophers delivered three consecutive dominant performances heading into the restart of the conference season, Pitino reflected on the wake-up call in Iowa when they defeated the Gophers by 20 earlier in the month.
“That Iowa game woke us up,” Pitino said at the time. “We cannot sleepwalk through any performances.”
Minnesota won six of their next eight after that with a double-overtime loss at Purdue mixed in.
Now losers in four out of six, the Gophers need a pick-me-up win against a Hawkeyes team they beat soundly at Williams Arena last season, scoring a conference-game-high 92 points.
The Hawkeyes have been vulnerable defensively this season, allowing 72.4 points per game, second-worst in the Big Ten above only Nebraska. They’ve allowed over 100 points in conference games twice and 80 points or more seven times. But they are capable of winning shootouts with the Big Ten’s highest-scoring offense that is capable of running the floor. Iowa outscored the Gophers 18-4 in fast-break points back on Dec. 9.
“Transition hurt us a lot,” said sophomore Gabe Kalscheur. “Not getting back, not matching up.”
Pitino rued the fact that the Gophers let their poor shooting that night (37 percent) affect their effort.
“We missed a lot of shots,” said the head coach. “Not to say they didn’t play well. They did. It zapped our energy. We looked like a team that was just frustrated with the fact that we couldn’t hit shots.”
Sixty-eight days between conference games is rare in college basketball, so it’s safe to say December’s result won’t have much bearing on what happens Sunday.
MARCH MADNESS RESEARCH
Pitino has been a quick study when it comes to the NCAA’s new NET rankings system. The Gophers coach planned a more difficult schedule to cater to the new formula and encouraged a more efficient approach from his offense that emphasizes 3-point shooting. So Pitino knows better than anyone that just because the Gophers are hovering around the .500 mark, doesn’t mean they’re out of the NCAA Tournament mix.
Refreshingly, Pitino has been an educator about the new system, often using his media sessions as opportunities to tout his team’s resume.
“I’m not going to be one of those coaches that says, ‘Oh, I have no idea what’s going on. I’m ignoring it. Don’t talk to me about it. One game at a time.’ No, I’m going to give you the real truth. I understand it, I study it. It doesn’t affect the way that we play. We want to win the game. The team in front of us is there. But you’ve got some downtime and you want to study it, sure, it’s interesting.
“I’ve talked about it before, one of the reasons we’re still very much in the hunt is we’ve got the number one strength of schedule in the country according to BPI. That’s why we’re right there.”
With seven regular season games to go, the Gophers have four at home — two against teams presently in the Top 25 — and three on the road. Pitino said earlier in the week that a 5-2 record down the stretch should put the Gophers into the tournament field.
“The beauty of this conference,” said Pitino, “is it’s not like other conferences that don’t have great quality wins in front of you. We’ve got probably five of seven that can potentially be Quad 1s.”
“They’re all super important because we already have 11 losses,” said junior Payton Willis. “We need every one of these last seven games.”