By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The more I watch Luka Garza and the third-ranked Iowa men’s basketball team dismantle vastly inferior opponents, the more excited I get about what is soon coming.
The Hawkeyes had little trouble with Western Illinois on Thursday, even without playing very well on offense, winning 99-58 at a mostly empty Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Garza stuffed the stat sheet as usual with 35 points, including 30 in the first half, as Iowa improved to 3-0 against three opponents that Iowa should defeat convincingly.
It marked the second time this season that Garza has scored at least 30 points in a half. The Washington D.C. native scored 36 points in the first half against Southern University last Friday, and finished with 41 points overall during the 103-76 victory.
Junior forward Jack Nunge also has rejoined the team after having missed the first two games following the death of his father, and he matched his career-high with 18 points off the bench in Thursday’s game.
Nunge’s father, Dr. Mark Nunge, passed away suddenly and unexpectedly on Nov. 20th at the age of 53.
Basketball will serve as a distraction for Jack Nunge as he deals with the sadness.
“It’s just kind of an insane situation,” an emotional Nunge said on a zoom conference after Thursday’s game. “I talked to my dad on Friday night, and then I got the call that nobody wants to get the next morning.
“I knew I had to go home, be with my family, be with my mom and be strong for them, because it’s something nobody wants to deal with. It’s been really difficult, I’ve got to be honest. But my mom is strong, my family is strong, my siblings are all strong. We’re going to get through this, that’s something that we’ve all talked about. I think being able to play a game gave them a distraction for a night, and that was really good for my family.”
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery had a feeling Nunge would play well in Thursday’s game based on how well Nunge had practiced the day before.
“It was just so incredible to see,” Fran McCaffery said. “And I knew it was going to happen, because he hadn’t practiced in well over a week, obviously, grieving with his family. He had one of the best practices I’ve ever seen, shot 9-of-10 in a practice, blocking shots, running the floor.
“He just knows how to play. He knows how to get open. He can stretch the floor and make threes. His length is effective defensively. He affects the game in so many ways.”
From a basketball standpoint, Nunge gives Iowa another 6-11 presence on the frontline, who can play alongside Garza or substitute for him at center.
Iowa struggled on offense for stretches in the second half as the Leathernecks trimmed the lead to 15 points.
But the outcome never was in doubt, and at times, especially in the second half, it looked as if Iowa played with little sense of urgency.
A for the sake of nit-picking, Iowa might have leaned too heavily on Garza in the first three games when it probably didn’t have to based on the opponents.
But it’s also hard to resist feeding a near sure-thing in the post.
Garza was virtually unstoppable in the first two games, averaging 33.5 points, and it was more of the same on Thursday against a Western Illinois team that is in a major rebuild with a new head coach, Rob Jeter, and with 14 players who weren’t on the roster last season.
Iowa’s scouting report was limited. But it didn’t matter as the Leathernecks had no answer for Iowa’s 6-foot-11 All-America center.
But now the competition will improve significantly with Iowa scheduled to face North Carolina and Iowa State in the next two games on Tuesday and Friday, respectively at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Iowa will also face top-ranked Gonzaga on Dec. 19 in Sioux Falls, S.D.
North Carolina has a deep and talented frontline that should test Garza on both ends of the floor.
Iowa has plenty of options on offense, with veteran players such as Joe Wieskamp, Jordan Bohannon and C.J. Fredrick, but with Garza soring points at a legendary pace in the first three games, they didn’t have to score much.
It was the Luka Garza show in the first three games, and it will be until somebody can at least slow him down a little on offense.
The risk with double-teaming Garza is that Iowa has multiple players who can make shots, including Bohannon, who is on course to become the Big Ten’s all-time leader in 3-point field goals.
Bohannon was held scoreless in Thursday’s game, and he hasn’t been much of a factor on offense to this point.
However, that will almost certainly change because Bohannon has a knack for making clutch shoots, especially from 3-point range.
Bohannon only took three shots in Thursday’s game, but he helped in other ways with six rebounds and five assists.
And even Garza having yet another incredible performance, this night belonged to his grief-stricken teammate.
“His strength is so inspiring,” Garza said of Nunge. “I think that was the biggest thing is just (I was) so excited to get on the court with him again. Obviously, we came in together, we were roommates freshman year. That’s my brother.
“He’s so responsible for the development of myself and my game, just pushing me in the summer. When you have to go against a guy like that every single day, it gets you so much better. I’m just so proud of him and his ability to push through everything him and his family are going through. Obviously, we all have his back here and we were ready whenever he decided to come back.”
Nunge, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the fifth game last season, has gained strength from being around his teammates, on and off the court.
“I was really excited to go out there and compete with my brothers,” he said. “It’s been a long road for me, it’s been over a year since I played a game. To finally go out there and show what I can do felt really good for me.”