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Leistikow: Where is Iowa all-time leading scorer Luka Garza's place in history?


Chad Leistikow   | Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — With a turnaround layin, off a pick-and-roll feed from Jordan Bohannon, in Sunday's second half against Penn State, Luka Garza surpassed the Iowa men’s basketball career scoring mark that the late Roy Marble set 32 years ago.

That layin would break a 56-56 tie and help send the Hawkeyes to a 74-68 win. A tribute video of former Hawkeye greats was shown after the game to honor the fact that there's a new No. 1 on Iowa's all-time scoring list: Garza 2,126 points, Marble 2,116. 

Given the increasing rarity of top college players staying in school for four years, Garza’s record may stand for another 32 years … or, perhaps, forever.

It would be hard to draw up a more deserving all-time scoring leader than Garza.

The 6-foot-11, 265-pound senior is a first-class guy off the floor with a renowned work ethic.

On the floor, he’s been blistering the nets for nearly two full seasons and taking Hawkeye men's hoops to heights not seen for a long, long time.

Even without a postseason last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Garza blew away Iowa’s single-season scoring record at 700 points. And pretty soon, he'll own the top two scoring seasons in Iowa history. He is scoring at an even more proficient clip than a year ago: a national-best 24.7 points per game. And this time, (we think) there will be a postseason. If you grant Iowa 10 more games after Sunday (four regular-season, let’s say six postseason), an 800-point season is not out of the question if Garza (at 567) averages 23.3 points in those games.

What Garza is doing is unprecedented at Iowa. Before Garza, there were two consensus first-team all-American seasons by Hawkeyes: Murray Wier in 1948, Chuck Darling in 1952. Barring an unforeseen upset, Garza will be the first two-time, first-team consensus all-American since Creighton's Doug McDermott, who did it three times (in 2012, 2013 and 2014).

And Sunday's was an official testament to Garza's status as an all-time great. But where will he rank in the “greatest player” discussions for years and decades to come?

Let’s have fun and dig a little deeper.

Garza certainly is among the top Big Ten players of the last 25 years

A slew of Garza superlatives help back up that statement.

He’s the only player in Big Ten history with at least 2,000 career points, 800 rebounds, 125 blocked shots and 100 3-pointers.

He’s on pace to become the first Big Ten player since Purdue’s Glenn Robinson (1993, 1994) to average 23 points and eight rebounds in back-to-back seasons.

He’s tracking to become just the second back-to-back scoring champion (after Ohio State’s Evan Turner in 2009 and 2010) in the last 27 seasons.

His scoring average of 24.7 would be the Big Ten's highest for a season since Michigan State’s Shawn Respert (25.6) in 1995.

There's an excellent chance that Garza (at 2,126) will become the first 21st-century Big Ten player to surpass 2,300 points. Purdue’s Rick Mount (2,323 points) currently stands No. 6 in conference history. Nos. 3-5 are tightly bunched — Michigan's Glen Rice (2,442) and Mike McGee (2,439) and Indiana's Steve Alford (2,438) — but their marks likely are out of reach barring a run to the Final Four. Indiana's Calbert Cheaney (2,613 from 1990-93) and Respert (2,531 from 1992-95) are 1-2.

Garza’s stretch of 20-plus points in 19 straight games was the longest by any major-conference player over the last 20 seasons.

Hopefully that paints a pretty full picture. Let Fran McCaffery take it from here.

“He got to 2,000 points quicker than anybody else (in the Big Ten) in the last 25 years,” the 11th-year Iowa coach says. "Think about who's playing in this league the last 25 years; some pretty incredible players. So that's an amazing statement when you think about it.

"I think the numbers speak for themselves."

There are two players in the conversation for best Hawkeye of all-time: Ronnie Lester … and now Garza

That’s one man's opinion, one that certainly doesn’t detract from a lot of great names in Iowa basketball history. From Dick Ives in the early 1940s to Carl Cain and Bill Logan in the 1950s to Don Nelson in the early 1960s to Sam Williams, John Johnson and Fred Brown of the high-scoring Ralph Miller era to Lester to Greg Stokes to B.J. Armstrong to Marble to Acie Earl to Chris Street to Aaron White … the list of Hawkeye greats is robust.

But if we’re talking about the full body of their careers — the numbers, their impact, the accolades — the top two are Lester and Garza.

Two totally different players; one post-up center, one cat-quick guard. Both players were instrumental recruits for their coaches from major out-of-state markets — Lester from Chicago, Garza from Washington, D.C. — to become Hawkeye focal points.

Each has made everyone around him better; Lester by creating for others, Garza by attracting double- and triple-teams for his fellow guards.

Both players battled against some of the best competitors of their eras. Lester went against the likes of Michigan State’s Magic Johnson, Ohio State’s Kelvin Ransey and Indiana’s Isaiah Thomas. Garza seemingly steps up against a tough big man every week, as the 2020-21 Big Ten is neck-and-neck with the 2004 ACC as the best conference of the KenPom.com era (since 2002).

It truly is tough to compare two all-time Iowa performers, but let’s recap some of the data.

Lester played only 99 games over four years at Iowa (his senior season derailed but not deterred by a serious knee injury), by far the fewest of any Hawkeye in the top 10 of all-time scoring. In fact, Lester had more points in his 99 games (1,675) than Garza did in his first 99 (1,661). And, don’t forget, Lester didn’t have the benefit of a 3-point line, either. Garza has 108 career 3s.

Lester’s year-by-year scoring averages were 13.4, 19.9, 18.7 and 14.8. He was twice first-team all-Big Ten and would’ve made it a third time, if not for the senior-year injury that cost him 19 games. He also dished out 480 career assists while shooting 47.1%, a percentage rarely seen for a point guard. He transformed Iowa basketball and the Lute Olson era.

Garza’s scoring averages by year have been 12.1, 13.1, 23.9 and 24.7. He is likely to be a two-time Big Ten player of the year. And he, too, helped to revive Iowa basketball. The Hawkeyes were 14-19 in Garza’s freshman year as he learned to play alongside fellow post man Tyler Cook. Now, they’re considered a legit Final Four contender. Garza is an overwhelming front-runner to become the first Hawkeye to win the prestigious Wooden Award, college basketball’s version of the Heisman Trophy.

They are both great. We could easily label Lester and Garza as 1A and 1B.

Here is some of what Garza said after Sunday's game about how he wants to be remembered.

“I didn’t come here to win awards, score points. ... Winning games is the most important thing to me," Garza said. "Every time I step on the floor, I play as hard as I can. I play every game like it’s my last. That’s what I want people to talk about when they talk about me.”

How Garza's college career will be ultimately remembered depends on what happens next.

Iowa’s most recent regular-season Big Ten championship was in 1978-79, when the Hawkeyes tied with (eventual national champion) Michigan State and Purdue. Iowa’s most recent Final Four occurred in 1980.

Lester was the catalyst for both accomplishments.

That’s the next step for Garza, to help provide championship-type moments for the Hawkeyes. He’s repeatedly said he came back for his senior season to win games, not to score points. Fortunately for the Hawkeyes, he’s been doing a lot of both.

One of the biggest strikes on Glenn Robinson's Purdue career was not making it to a Final Four. That 1993-94 Purdue team was dynamic, and Robinson won that year's Wooden Award.

One of the most common comparisons for Garza among recent Big Ten players is Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky, an inside-outside big man who flourished in his junior and senior seasons ... like Garza has. It might surprise you that Garza's pure numbers are far superior to Kaminsky's; however, Big Frank justifiably gets a lot of credit for the two Final Fours he has to his name.

At Iowa, Garza's No. 55 will join Lester’s No. 12 in jersey retirement at some point. That seems to be a given, and it would be apropos to take care of that next season when fans can (hopefully) be around to celebrate his accomplishments.

But what will the final list of accomplishments include?

To be continued.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

Iowa’s top 10 all-time leading scorers

2,126 — Luka Garza (2018-present)

2,116 Roy Marble (1986-89)

1,859 Aaron White (2012-15)

1,779 Acie Earl (1990-93)

1,768  Greg Stokes (1982-85)

1,705 B.J. Armstrong (1986-89)

1,694 Roy Devyn Marble (2011-14)

1,675 Ronnie Lester (1977-80)

1,635 Matt Gatens (2009-12)

1,611 Jess Settles (1994-97, ’99)