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Michigan State Men’s Basketball Defensive Game Plan: How to Guard Iowa’s Luka Garza

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The frontrunner for the National Player of the Year award is the next Big Ten star to face the Spartans.

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Luka Garza of the Iowa Hawkeyes is the front runner for the Associated Press Player of the Year Award, and no one is really close outside of Ayo Dosunmu. He is leading the nation in scoring per game and sixth in the nation in rebounds per game. His play style is straight out of the 1980s. He lives in the low post, relying on paint seals, hook shots, and mid post jump shots. According to InStat, 52 percent of his possessions come on post touches and 12.3 percent of his possessions come on put backs. That accounts for basically two thirds of his offensive touches. This season, he has also expanded upon his ability to shoot off the catch. After shooting 35.8 percent from three-point range during his junior year, he has hiked that up to 48.9 percent through 13 games as a senior.

His game is built on his strength, frame, and touch. He lacks athleticism both vertically and laterally. On 212 shots, Garza only has five dunks. He relies on the Iowa guards to create his shots for him as well. He does his work early to create positional advantages. Once he gets the ball, he is going up for a shot almost immediately. 67.4 percent of his shots at the rim are assisted.

So how can the Michigan State Spartans stop Garza on Thursday night? Let’s take a look.

Avoid the Seal

Garza sets up the majority of his post touches before he even gets the ball in his hands. He uses his footwork, 265-pound frame, and decent center of gravity to create easy shots at the rim. His timing is extremely key as a seal that comes into play too early can be pushed out of the paint, and a seal that happens too late results in closed off passing lanes and fronted coverages.

In this clip against Northwestern, Garza gets into the post early, he may not get deep position, but he uses Pete Nance’s positioning to take the baseline spin. Nance is angled to not give up the post hook to the left, but that results in a layup. The key to stopping actions like this is to force Garza away from the rim. When he gets the ball around the basket, it is an automatic bucket.

In this set action against Iowa State, Garza gets the back screen and stops for the seal in the dead center of the paint. Iowa’s offense requires a ton of off-ball motion. This constant action, specifically on the backside, draws attention away from the heliocentric Garza. In this clip, the paint is just about empty once he gets the ball.

In this secondary transition possession, Garza thinks a step ahead of the defense. As soon as the ball is swung to the wing, he is already in position for the post touch. His defender cannot force Garza out of the paint, and that results in an easy shot for Garza. He ends up getting fouled, resulting in free throws. He is shooting 74.7 percent from the free throw line, so that is free points.

Double team the post

Once Garza gets the ball in the post, he is almost always going up for a shot. Very rarely is he looking to pass the ball out of the post, as he only has 20 assists on the season. He is not a threat to hit shooters in their shooting pocket. Applying pressure is important to making sure that Garza misses quickies around the rim.

Against Minnesota, Garza was able to get a decent post position whenever he liked. That was pretty apparent by the 27 shots that he took. In this clip, Garza gets his post seal, but Minnesota immediately brings pressure. He is looking to get to his hook shot, but is forced to go base line into additional traffic.

The key to getting the double team is making sure the on-ball defender holds his position long enough for the secondary defender to fully commit to the dig. Garza’s initial move is usually against single coverage unless the defense is making NBA level rotations. As shown in this clip, the Gonzaga defender cannot wall off Garza effectively. That allows him to break the double team and get his angle toward the rim.

Northwestern’s Pete Nance succeeded when it came to getting that initial wall off and forcing the counter move in the post from Garza. The Northwestern defense applies serious pressure to Garza after that. Even though it ends up with a foul call, it is still a strong defensive possession.

This is an example of a poor attempt at a double team in the post. Nance gets the wall off once again, but Anthony Gaines completely over commits to getting a steal on the initial trap. Once he gambles, Garza can step through and get the post shot that he is looking for.

Once again, Nance forces Garza into poor post possession. Rather than getting it in the low post, he has to catch in the mid post. Gaines has a much better attempt at a trap on this possession. Garza is forced into a poor mid post attempt rather than look to pass out of it. His scoring mentality works against him on this possession.

In this clip against Rutgers, Ron Harper Jr. has the perfect opportunity to wall off Garza and most likely force a dribble pick up. Instead, he does not fully commit to the trap and ends up prancing by. That gives Garza the easy layup. Being consistent and disciplined with pressure is the key to getting the ball out of his hands.

Run him off the line

Garza has built upon his shooting range for his senior year. He is now a legitimate threat from behind the three-point line as he is shooting 48.9 from behind the arch. He gets to a lot of these shots on isolation actions or off screening actions. He has the versatility to pop out of the pick and roll, adding a new layer to his game, as 10.3 percent of his offensive actions came off pick and pops. Running him off the line and forcing him to create off the dribble is the best course of action. He is not near as capable when attacking from the three-point line.

Against North Caroline, Armando Bacot had some success against the All American. On this possession, he did a great job of applying pressure on the ball. That forced Garza to drive to the rim. Once he begins to drive, Bacot walls off and forces the bad shot.

This possession is a clear indicator of a defensive scheme that will not work against Garza anymore. While it worked in the past, the big in the pick and roll cannot play drop coverage against Garza anymore.

This play is an indicator of how forcing the drive can be beneficial to the defense. Iowa State applies solid pressure on Garza and forces him baseline into the trap. At this point he has to get rid of the ball. While he can make simple reads like this kick out, he is not going to create advantages for others off the pass, rather create opportunities for his teammates to create their own advantages.

This one is pretty self explanatory, but do not go under off-ball screening actions.

In short, applying pressure is the best way to subdue Garza on the offensive end of the floor. You cannot completely stop him by any means, but rather slow him down by throwing traps and double teams at him. Doing your work early on defense is vital, as he excels because he gets great post position before he even touches the ball.