Justin Ahrens and Kyle Young took a moment, looked at each other, then shook their heads. They couldn’t think of a name to toss out as the toughest player Ohio State men’s basketball has had to guard this season.
“I can’t think of anybody specific,” Young said.
The sophomore and junior forwards might not have to rack their brains quite as hard to think of an answer Thursday night when No. 25 Ohio State (17-8, 7-7 Big Ten) takes on No. 20 Iowa (18-8, 9-6) and junior forward Luka Garza at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“I think he’s in incredible condition for a guy as big as he is,” Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann said. “He’s got tremendous touch. I think being a year older has helped him –– that doesn’t always –– but it’s clear he put in tremendous work in the offseason with his conditioning, his fitness, his shooting. And then he’s obviously incredibly physical.”
Garza, who stands at 6-foot-11, 260 pounds, didn’t do much in the teams’ past meeting, scoring just six points in a 20-point blowout loss to the Buckeyes this past February.
But as noted by Holtmann, Garza has put not only the Big Ten, but college basketball as a whole, on notice with a bountiful leap over his play and production from years past.
With career-high statistical averages nearly across the board, Garza is putting up 23.7 points and 9.7 rebounds a game. He leads the Big Ten in scoring by nearly four points per night, but he’s been even better since league play began.
“I’ve been saying a lot of great things about him this year –– he’s having a fantastic year. Someone who’s playing with just as much energy, going out there and doing what he’s doing, is fun,” Young said. “As a competitor, you want to play against the best guys. So seeing what kind of year he’s having, we’re excited to go in there and play them.”
Garza is scoring 25.8 points per game in his past 13 contests, including 20 or more in 11 straight games. The Hawkeye big man is shooting 42.3 percent from 3 in the past five games, and boasts five 30-point performances this year, including a 44-point outburst against Michigan.
By contrast, no Buckeye has scored 30 in a game this season, and only junior forward Kaleb Wesson has scored 20-plus in more than one game.
Wesson has already been through the ringer with defensive assignments on elite Big Ten big men such as Minnesota sophomore center Daniel Oturu and Maryland sophomore forward Jalen Smith, but Garza may be his stiffest challenge yet.
Garza wasn’t the only player to have an anomalous outing in the most recent matchup between the Buckeyes and Hawkeyes.
Ahrens had 29 points against Iowa during his freshman season –– 17 more than he’s had in any other game as a Buckeye.
Ahrens said he had a feeling he was due for a big performance ahead of the game a year ago, and Holtmann said the Versailles, Ohio, native has the green light to shoot the ball from deep when he’s in.
“Coach tells me to be confident when I get in. If I get a good look, take it,” Ahrens said. “He’s gonna be mad at me if I don’t.”
The 6-foot-5 forward has done little to betray the trust of his head coach as of late. Ahrens has shot 66.7 percent from 3 in his past six games, a stretch in which he has hit a triple in all but one contest.
“He’s actually taken better ones than when Justin was in more limited minutes,” Holtmann said. “And some of that is — guys who identify with shooting feel like they got to come and snap it off as soon as they get in the game. Not always the best for them. But he’s settled in.”
Sophomore forward Luther Muhammad has begun to heat up as well, scoring nine, 10 and 11 points in his past three games on 69 percent shooting. Muhammad shot less than 18 percent in his previous eight performances.
The Buckeyes enter Thursday as the hotter team, having won five of six while Iowa is .500 in its past six matchups.
But Ohio State is just 3-6 away from Columbus this season, and Iowa hasn’t lost at home since Nov. 11.
Ohio State will have to overcome one of the Big Ten’s most hostile environments — and maybe its best player — when it tips off against Iowa at 7 p.m. Thursday in Iowa City.