If the first meeting between the Gophers’ Daniel Oturu and Iowa’s Luka Garza was a 12-round heavyweight title fight, the scorecard would have slightly favored Oturu.
Garza, a 6-11, 260-pound junior, is arguably the favorite to win the Big Ten Player of the Year award. But Oturu, the Gophers’ 6-10, 240-pound sophomore, tested Garza like few big men have this season.
Oturu won his individual battle, but he lost the war — in a 20-point loss Dec. 9 in Iowa City. The much-anticipated rematch of Oturu vs. Garza comes Sunday at Williams Arena.
The Gophers (12-11, 6-7 Big Ten) could use another big game from Oturu in the matchup of the league’s top centers. That won’t be enough, though, to beat the No. 21 Hawkeyes (17-8, 8-6) in what appears to be the biggest home game this season for Minnesota.
“Iowa — that’s a big game,” Oturu said. “We have to have the same mentality to start the game strong like we did versus Wisconsin [in the last home game]. It’s got to be like that every game from here on out.”
In last Saturday’s 83-77 loss at Penn State, Oturu scored a career-high 32 points to go with 16 rebounds and three blocks. Garza, who has averaged 26.9 points in Big Ten play, had 38 points in the Hawkeyes’ 89-77 loss Thursday at Indiana.
Iowa is 1-3 this season when Garza scores 30 points or more.
“I think when I’m being aggressive and scoring, it puts our team in a good position to win,” Garza told reporters. “There’s a lot of other factors than me scoring 30-plus.”
Gophers coach Richard Pitino said Garza is “a terrific, terrific player. He’s tough. He’s relentless with post-ups. He’s relentless with running the court.”
Oturu watched Garza this offseason after being challenged by Pitino to take his game to another level after a solid freshman year.
“It was just fascinating for me to see how hard he posts for an entire possession,” Oturu told the Big Ten Network. “I just do the best I can to imitate that because now it will help me down low. Because that’s the main part of my game.”
Sunday is a chance for Oturu to see how much he and the Gophers have improved since their 72-52 loss at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Garza had 21 points and 10 rebounds in that December meeting, shooting 8-for-17 from the floor. Oturu had 22 points on 10-for-12 shooting to go with 12 rebounds and five blocks, but he committed a career-high eight turnovers.
The starting backcourt of Marcus Carr, Payton Willis and Gabe Kalscheur also combined to score only 10 points on 3-for-29 shooting. The Gophers proved once before they can’t beat Iowa even when Oturu outplays Garza, so the rest of the roster needs to support him this time around.
“It’s not just Daniel versus Garza,” Pitino said. “For us, it’s got to be a team effort.”