If college basketball were a video game, then Luka Garza would be a cheat code.
He’s overpowering to the point of it being unfair for anyone going up against Iowa: Garza put up 36 and 30 points against Southern University and Western Illinois, respectively — in the first half. He outscored both teams over the first 20 minutes.
Garza, the reigning Sporting News Player of the Year, is the first player with that distinction to return the following season since Tyler Hansbrough in 2008-09. That year, he led North Carolina to a national championship. Garza has the opportunity to do the same with the No. 3 Hawkeyes and — at the rate he’s playing — he just might. Through three games, he’s averaging 34 points, 9.7 rebounds and 2.7 blocks in just 26 minutes per contest.
But: Those numbers have come against mid-major competition. Garza’s first true test comes Tuesday against Hansbrough’s alma mater, the 16th-ranked Tar Heels.
Garza of course isn’t the only notable big man in this game. In fact, North Carolina has a full stable of talented bigs who will likely all share defensive responsibilities against the Iowa star. Leading that charge was supposed to be Garrison Brooks, the ACC’s preseason Player of the Year favorite (though that’s now in question).
Here’s a look at what you need to know going into Iowa vs. UNC.
Why is Luka Garza so good?
Simply put, the man doesn’t miss.
He can do it inside, outside and can get to the free throw line, making him a constant threat in the half court. Garza is currently shooting 78.6 percent from the field, 62.5 percent from 3-point range and 80.8 percent from the free throw line. In fact, he didn’t miss a shot in the first half against Southern, making him 12 of 12 for 36 of his 41 points.
“With Garza you’ve got to try and cut down his percentage first. That is your job, try and cut down his percentage first and if you do that that helps you,” Carolina coach Roy Williams said ahead of Tuesday’s matchup. “But he is the real deal and right now I think he is playing and expected to be one of the best players in the country, if not the best player in the country.”
Who will UNC use to guard Luka Garza?
Brooks — who, again, could miss Tuesday’s game — has had an interesting career at North Carolina. He started 16 games at the beginning of his freshman season before Roy Williams opted to play small ball and bring him off the bench. Brooks played more as a fourth or fifth scoring option in his first two seasons behind the likes of Luke Maye, Cam Johnson, Coby White and Joel Berry.
Brooks finally emerged in 2019-20, a 14-19 season that ranks as the worst of Williams’ tenure. That said, he was one of the team’s few bright spots, becoming the go-to scorer on a team that lost five ACC games by one possession. He was named the ACC’s Most Improved Player and garnered enough respect to be voted the league’s preseason player of the year the following year.
5️⃣ Garrison Brooks Junior Season Highlight 📼
— Carolina Basketball (@UNC_Basketball) March 24, 2020
Brooks put up a valiant effort in the Tar Heels’ 69-67 loss to Texas on Wednesday, putting up 18 points, seven rebounds and two blocks. However, it seems he suffered an ankle injury in the process and still hadn’t participated in full-court activity as of Monday evening.
If Brooks is out or limited in Tuesday’s game against Iowa, North Carolina will have to turn to the rest of its deep and talented, albeit mostly inexperienced front court to try to slow down Garza.
Armando Bacot, Brooks’ sophomore starting front court counterpart, is coming off a solid freshman campaign in which he averaged 9.6 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. He has seen a slight dip in minutes thanks to talented freshmen Caleb Love and Day’Ron Sharpe, but his production has remained steady through four games. He’s averaging 11 points per game on 78.9 percent shooting and had a double-double — 10 points and 12 rebounds — in the loss to Texas.
Bacot is a classic back-to-the-basket big with a decent repertoire of moves. Defensively, he moves his feet well and hasn’t gotten into foul trouble, though guarding Garza would be a whole new level of a challenge.
Armando Bacot finished with 12 points on 4/4 shooting for the Tar Heels this evening in a victory over UNLV. Here’s a very crafty spin move from Bacot.
Bacot had 12 points and eight rebounds on 80% shooting last time out for UNC. pic.twitter.com/gUOLOH4Rlr
— Jake (@jakeweingarten) December 1, 2020
Williams calls Sharpe — one of those talented freshmen — “the best rebounder he’s had since Tyler Hansbrough.” That’s one hell of a compliment for the young big man.
Sharpe is a strong, physical specimen at 6-11, 265 pounds, who has also shown a pretty high basketball IQ. He has proven dominant at times on the offensive glass, such as his 13-point, 10-rebound (five offensive) against the College of Charleston. He displayed his well-roundedness with four points, seven rebounds, four assists and four blocks in the win over Stanford in the Camping World Maui Invitational semifinal.
Should Brooks be unable to play against Iowa, Sharpe is the likely favorite to fill his spot in the starting lineup and could share defensive duties with Bacot on Garza.
The other five-star big man, Walker Kessler brings a game that complements Sharpe’s pretty well. While Sharpe uses his strength to dominate the interior, Kessler, standing at 7-1, uses his length and soft touch to reach over opponents and shoot with ease.
2021 UNC Dunk Count: 4
2021 Kessler Dunks: 1
Career Kessler Dunks: 1
Walker Kessler’s first career dunk as a Tar Heel came on a putback of a missed Love 3. Kessler’s absurd length is on display as he tips the rebound to himself, then easily slams it home. pic.twitter.com/RihcqKXBHv
— Carolina Dunk of the Day (@UNC_Dunks) December 4, 2020
Kessler, having missed several practices coming into the season due to COVID-19 protocols, has been eased into the rotation more slowly than Sharpe, but his talent is apparent. That said, he’d likely only guard Garza in a scenario where Brooks is out and either Bacot or Sharpe are in foul trouble.
Consider this one an absolute last resort for Williams.
If Brooks is out and Garza is torching the other big men, UNC may look to play small ball. That would likely bring Andrew Platek off the bench to play the 3 and move Leaky Black to the 4. Black is the Tar Heels’ best perimeter defender and has decent enough length at 6-8 to at least bother Garza a little on the interior.
X-factors for Iowa vs. UNC
Iowa: Joe Wieskamp
It’s easy to forget about how potent the rest of this Iowa offense is because of how dominant Garza has been, but the Tar Heels better not lose track of Joe Wieskamp.
The junior sharpshooter is averaging 12 points per game on 50 percent shooting from 3-point range, while also chipping in 5.7 rebounds per game. North Carolina has struggled in recent seasons defending beyond the arc; they’ve done an OK job so far in 2020-21, holding opponents to 29.4 percent from 3. Iowa, however, is by far the best shooting team they’ve played, shooting 39 percent for the season. If Wieskamp gets hot, guarding Garza will be that much more difficult.
UNC: Caleb Love and RJ Davis
A lot of the focus has been placed on the two front courts, but at some point it doesn’t matter how well Brooks, Bacot, Sharpe and Kessler play if the Tar Heels can’t take care of the basketball. North Carolina turned the ball over 23 times against Stanford and 13 times against Texas. Suffice it to say, UNC will be in trouble if those turnover troubles continue.
This is the first time Williams has ever started two freshmen in his back court. With Caleb Love and Davis still finding their feet at the college level, it’s understandable to see some growing pains early. But the two have also shown early flashes of promise. Love scored a team-high 17 points in the season opener against College of Charleston. Davis poured in 16 in the win over UNLV and has scored in double figures all four games. If those two can take care of the ball and provide a scoring punch, it could help give them the edge over the Hawkeyes.