IOWA CITY — You can tell Luka Garza is chomping at the bit to get back in action.
Iowa’s 6-foot-11 sophomore has missed three games with a sprained left ankle, and with the Hawkeyes now 0-3 in the Big Ten, he’s more anxious than ever to get back onto the court.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery can tell Garza is anxious, too. But he vowed again Friday that he won’t rush his starting center and No. 2 scorer back until he’s fully ready.
That’s why he didn’t use Garza on Thursday night in an 86-70 loss to Purdue even though he had gone through pregame warm-ups and was in uniform.
"If I asked the kid to play, he would've played. That's how he's wired," McCaffery said. "He wanted to play. The plan all along was to see how he did in practice the night before. Within five minutes you could tell he wasn't ready, so we made the decision not to play him."
What about Sunday in a 4:30 p.m. matchup with 24th-ranked Nebraska?
McCaffery isn’t sure. He said it’s important for Garza to get back some "explosiveness" before he can play.
"He's mainly got to get that back, especially jumping off his bad foot, which is important for a right-handed guy," the coach said. "So we'll see. He's running better. He's not in pain. But he doesn't have the explosiveness he needs.
"If he gets that, we'll play him. Will he get that by Sunday? I don't know. We'll run him out there today and see how he does, a little bit tomorrow. He's not going to practice the whole time obviously, but we'll see."
Garza, who has a reputation as a fiery competitor, said it was tough enough to sit out non-conference victories over Savannah State and Bryant. It was even more difficult to watch as the Hawkeyes struggled to match up with 7-3 Matt Haarms in Thursday’s defeat.
"When you’re on the bench, that’s one of the toughest things is watching your team go out and play without you, knowing you’re a key part of the team …," he said. "Even watching the Bryant game was tough. Every game I want to be out there whether we’re winning or losing."
He admitted he would like to be out there Sunday but said the decision is in the hands of the coaches and training staff. He added that he felt they made the right call by not throwing him onto the court against Purdue.
"I’m just going to continue to work the next few days on the strength and getting all that back so that I can be able to have the longevity of the season," he said.
While the injury has impacted his athleticism, something he admitted he lacks to begin with, it seemingly hasn’t hurt his perimeter shooting skills. He made at least six consecutive 3-point attempts while going through pregame warm-ups Thursday. He said it helps that he doesn’t get a lot of elevation on his shot anyway.
"In practice, that’s mostly what I’ve been doing is shooting, and when I’m not doing the ankle strength stuff, I’m still getting shots up," he said.
Garza, who averaged 12.7 points per game in the 11 games in which he has played, sprained the ankle in practice on Dec. 21, the day before the Savannah State game.
He also missed much of preseason training camp after having a 9-pound cyst removed from his abdomen on Sept. 7.
"It’s especially frustrating because of that," he said. "I had to go through that, and then I got back healthy and then something like this happens. It just adds to the frustration. … I know there’s still a lot of season left so that’s my focus. There’s still 17 games left in the regular season, and I want to play in all of them."
His teammates are anxious to get him back, too, but they also are trying to remain patient.
"With his size, he takes up a lot of space in the middle," junior Tyler Cook said. "Obviously, he has an ability to make shots and hit open guys, gets guys open. He makes my job a lot easier on both ends of the floor. He affects the game is so many different ways. You can’t just pick one.
"We definitely miss him but like I told him, his No. 1 priority should be to get 100 percent healthy and not rush back because his longevity is in his and our best interests."