Minnesota will be the first team this season to get a third crack at Iowa center Luka Garza, newly crowned as Big Ten Player of the Year, when the teams meet Thursday afternoon in a quarterfinal matchup.
Daniel Oturu, second to Garza in the conference scoring race, plans to rise to the challenge.
“Luka Garza is one of the best players in the country,” Oturu said after leading the 12th-seeded Gophers (15-16) to a 74-57 win over Northwestern on Wednesday night in Indianapolis. “Being able to go up against a guy like that always brings the best out of you. You want to compete with him because you know he’s going to bring it.”
Oturu, a 6-foot-10 sophomore who scored a game-high 24 points against the Wildcats, had an up-close look at Garza as the powerful junior center averaged 22.5 points and nine rebounds in a pair of wins for the fifth-seeded Hawkeyes (20-11) during the regular season.
Iowa, ranked 25th nationally, rolled 72-52 at home on Dec. 9 behind Garza’s 8-of-17 shooting from the field. Oturu had 22 points and 12 rebounds in that one, but he also committed eight turnovers.
In the rematch on Feb. 16 in Minneapolis, the Gophers let a second-half lead slip away in a 58-55 loss. Garza finished with 24 points and eight rebounds on 11-of-21 shooting, while Oturu had 15 points and six rebounds.
Double-teaming Garza (23.9 season scoring average) is a common theme against the 6-11, 260-pounder, so Oturu (20.0 scoring average) knows he won’t have to do it alone.
“Just being solid on defense, trying to make it as hard as possible for him, is a key,” said Oturu, named this week to the All-Big Ten second team. “He’s a great player. He’s going to make a ton of shots. But at the end of the day, I’m just going to try to compete with him and even maybe compete harder than him.”
Minnesota coach Richard Pitino noted the quick turnaround in facing Iowa, which dropped three of its last four games. Guard Joe Wieskamp, a 6-6 sophomore, saw his late-season slump begin with a 1-for-7 night at Minnesota.
“Obviously Garza is one of the best players in the country,” Pitino said. “With short prep time, we have to be confident. Garza, from a defensive side of it for us, is such a load; he’s so hard to guard and they run so many good things for him and he just keeps coming at you.”
Minnesota finished sixth in the Big Ten in 3-point shooting percentage and made nine of its 12 3-pointers after the break in wiping out a 31-29 halftime deficit against Northwestern.
“Their 3-point shooting can be devastating when they get going,” Wildcats coach Chris Collins said.
In the two losses against Iowa, however, Minnesota shot just 13 of 50 (26 percent) from beyond the arc.
“We haven’t been great offensively versus them,” Pitino said. “We’re scoring the basketball pretty well as of late. We’ve got to get great rest, get off our feet, try to watch a little bit of film tonight and (Thursday) and get excited for another good opportunity.”
–Field Level Media