We kind of forgot about Jack Nunge.
He wasn’t able to play in Iowa’s first two men’s basketball games this season, and hadn’t played for the Hawkeyes since he tore an ACL in the fifth game of last season, over a year ago. He had redshirted the season before, in his second season in the program.
Jack is back, and in time to try to help his team Tuesday night when it faces North Carolina at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
The fourth-year sophomore forward immediately established himself last Thursday as a key player in No. 3 Iowa’s hopes of doing big things this season. He came off the bench to score 18 points in 19 minutes in the Hawkeyes’ 99-58 over Western Illinois, making eight straight shots in one stretch. Included were two 3-pointers.
“That’s the guy we look at practice every day,” said Iowa senior center Luka Garza, who leads the nation in scoring with 34.0 points per game. “He plays with that energy and that type of ability to shoot the ball, stretch the floor.
“He is a really, really good player. A lot of teams got lucky last year when he got hurt.”
Garza and Nunge came to Iowa in the same recruiting class, a pair of 6-foot-11 players who were part of Fran McCaffery’s rotation as freshmen.
Garza finished the 2017-18 season strong, scoring at least 13 points in Iowa’s last six games. Nunge tailed off that season, a common thing for freshman big men. With the Hawkeyes well-stocked in post players the following season with Tyler Cook, Ryan Kriener and Garza, Nunge opted to redshirt and work on his game and physique.
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He started the first five games last season, and averaged 12.5 points in the two games preceding his injury. You probably haven’t heard a lot about him in the buildup for this season. But the Hawkeyes were ready and eager for his return.
“He’s been a dominant player in practice for the last 2 1/2 years,” McCaffery said. “His length defensively, his ability to rebound in traffic, and offensively he’s just as good a passer and ballhandler as he is a post-up player and a shooter.
“So that only makes him really difficult to defend when he is playing either the power forward or the center position because he’s not only going be on the block, he can make 3s. He hits cutters. He posts up. He seals you. He uses his length. He can score over either shoulder.
“He’s a very efficient guy because he plays the game the right way.”
Iowa’s offense in its three games has been top-heavy with Garza. If something’s there, you take it, and the Hawkeyes have little trouble getting the ball in the post to Garza. But starting with Tuesday night’s home game against North Carolina, opponents will be bigger and better, and Garza welcomes Nunge’s presence.
“He helps me tremendously,” Garza said after last Thursday’s game. “When you have a guy who shoots the ball and stretches the floor like that, he gives me more space. ... As a big, that changes a lot of things.
“Also defensively, you saw him tonight blocking shots and contesting every shot at him. He’s 6-11, taller than me. He’s got the longest wingspan and he’s a heck of an athlete.
“We’re a whole different group with him on the floor.”
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