The Big Ten is full of talented big men this season. Two of them – Matt Haarms and Trevion Williams – play for Purdue. Tonight, they will meet arguably the best the conference has to offer at their position.
That would be 6-foot-11 junior Luka Garza of Iowa. The Washington, D.C., native is leading the Big Ten in scoring at 23 points per game and is second in the league in rebounding at 10.4 per game, all while shooting nearly 55% from the field and 38% from 3-point range. He's the main reason the No. 17 Hawkeyes (16-6, 7-4 Big Ten), who invade Mackey Arena tonight, are in the thick of the Big Ten title race.
After watching film on Garza, who Tuesday was recognized as one of 20 players nationally on the Wooden Award watch list, Williams had a simple assessment of the Hawkeyes star:
“That guy is real, man,” Williams said.
Williams and Haarms will have the unenviable task of trying to hold Garza to fewer than 20 points for the first time since Jan. 7. Haarms called his Iowa counterpart “probably one of the hardest-playing dudes in the entire conference” and acknowledged that shutting him down is unlikely.
“You make everything hard,” the Boilermakers' 7-foot-3 center said of the game plan for Garza. “You know a guy like that's gonna get to a spot, he's gonna get something, but make it as tough as it possibly can be.
“If he's making tough fadeaways, tough shots over hands, then you shake his hand, but we know he's going to miss more of those than he makes.”
The Hawkeyes come into the game in the midst of their best stretch of the season. They've won six of their last seven, including victories over four ranked teams: Maryland, Michigan, Rutgers and Illinois. Crucially, however, none of those triumphs has come on the road. Iowa is only 3-3 in true road games this season.
Purdue (12-10, 5-6), meanwhile, has excelled at Mackey Arena. The Boilers are 9-2 in West Lafayette this season, including a 70-51 shellacking of Wisconsin the last time out. That's compared to a 3-8 record away from Mackey.
One of the biggest keys to Purdue's home success, in addition to the energy provided by a stadium that has sold out every game this year, has been the shooting of Sasha Stefanovic. The redshirt sophomore is hitting 49.3% from beyond the arc at Mackey, while making only 23.1% of his 3-pointers in road and neutral games.
Stefanovic should come into tonight's game with plenty of confidence after beating Northwestern on Saturday with a deep 3 in the game's final seconds.
Even if the Crown Point native has another big performance from long distance, however, this will not be an easy game for the Boilers. Iowa is Garza-centric, but sophomore guard Joe Wieskamp is averaging 15.1 points and 6.2 rebounds, and freshman C.J. Fredrick is scoring 11.6 points per game while shooting 46.9% from distance.
They have helped the Hawkeyes average 77 points in Big Ten play, best in the league.
“You throw (Wieskamp and Fredrick)'s skill sets along with Luka Garza and it's made for a great combination for (Iowa coach) Fran (McCaffery) this year,” Boilermakers coach Matt Painter said.
Purdue vs. Iowa
When: 7 p.m. today
Where: Mackey Arena, West Lafayette
Records: Purdue (12-10, 5-6 Big Ten), No. 17 Iowa (16-6, 7-4)
TV: Big Ten Network
Radio: 1190 AM, 107.5 FM