Iowa's basketball coach says Connor McCaffery will be all in on baseball to start his Hawkeye career
Jack Nunge heard that the newcomer to his Coralville neighborhood was the coach of the Iowa men’s basketball team.
But that made less of an impression on the fifth-grader than the knowledge that the McCaffery family had athletic sons about his age. Nunge and some friends trekked over to welcome the new kids on the block and to get in a quick game of basketball.
“My family is moving to Indiana in a week,” Nunge informed young Connor McCaffery.
Nunge doesn’t recall even meeting Hawkeyes coach Fran McCaffery in that brief interval as neighbors in the spring of 2010. So it would be overstating things — now that Nunge is set to return to Iowa City as a 6-foot-11 prized McCaffery recruit — to paint that initial brush of contact between the families as a life-altering event.
But still …
“We (Fran McCaffery and him) talk about it pretty much every time we see each other. It’s just kind of weird how it ended up that way. All my neighbors from that time became his neighbors,” Nunge said recently.
“The fact that I used to live there had a huge part in me choosing to play at Iowa. I was a huge Iowa fan.”
Before the McCaffery-Nunge reunion, there was a seven-year sojourn in southern Indiana. Nunge arrived just in time to enter middle school. Basketball helped ease the transition.
Payton Mills was among the first Hoosiers Nunge befriended. Mills was used to playing center on his AAU team. He wasn’t initially pleased to note that Nunge was at least his height.
“I was scared of him at first,” Mills recalled, “because I thought he was going to take my spot.”
Mills had nothing to worry about, it turns out. The two boys literally grew up together. It’s just that Nunge did it at an accelerated pace.
From 6 feet tall as a scrawny eighth-grader to 6-3 as a freshman, then a big leap to 6-7 as a sophomore good enough to start for the varsity team at Castle High School, to 6-9 as a junior and finally 6-11 this season.
But always with the skills and mindset of a deep-shooting wing player.
“Usually when a kid grows, shoots up that quickly, they become really uncoordinated,” Castle coach Brian Gibson said of Nunge. “Jack, on the other hand, kept getting more and more coordinated as he got bigger. And that’s when we realized we had something special going on here.”
Nunge had genetics on his side. Both parents, Mark and Beth, played Division III basketball, Beth at Central College in Pella. Older sister Rebecca plays volleyball at Notre Dame. His mother starred at Aplington High School when she was known as Beth Poppens. One of Nunge’s cousins, Chelsea Poppens, was a 6-2 forward who scored 1,400 points in a stellar career at Iowa State.
“It’s really hard to get used to your body. You kind of have to grow into it and mature, get used to everything you can do, athletically. That’s something that doesn’t come easy when you’re spurting up,” Nunge said. “It’s been a process, but it’s worked out.”
It was during his sophomore year of high school that Nunge first realized he might be good enough to play Division I college basketball. He was inconsistent that season, but his good moments were really good.
Mills remembers one such sequence vividly. He was sitting on the bench late in a low-scoring game. Mills said Nunge had been dunking for a while in practices and warmups, but hadn’t really unleashed one in a game. On this occasion, Nunge grabbed the basketball on a fast break and drove in on the opposing team’s star player, a senior center.
“I was just in shock,” Mills said of Nunge’s ensuing emphatic dunk. “That’s when I knew that he was going to be great.”
Iowa assistant basketball coach Sherman Dillard saw Nunge that year and prompted McCaffery to take a look during the summer AAU play. Dillard jogged McCaffery’s memory — that Nunge was the kid who was moving out of his Coralville neighborhood when he first arrived five years earlier.
Nunge reminded McCaffery of one of his current stars, Jarrod Uthoff. He was rangy and could play on the perimeter but also block shots. He excelled at an up-tempo pace. Iowa became Nunge’s first high-major offer. Vanderbilt was next. But few other big schools were after him yet.
Nunge was a team leader at Castle as a junior. So was Mills. There were no seniors on the team, so Nunge took over when he needed, averaging 20 points and 11 rebounds. The 6-5 Mills, with a sturdier build, handled post duties so Nunge could roam the perimeter and pick out mismatches to exploit. Castle finished 19-6.
None of that seemed to impress the in-state Big Ten Conference schools.
“Indiana and Purdue looked at him, and for whatever reason they were not as excited as Jack would have liked, and he moved on,” Gibson said.
Nunge visited Iowa three times and committed in September 2016, officially signing with the Hawkeyes that November. He then went out and tore up big-school competition in Indiana as a senior. Nunge averaged 22.8 points, 11.6 rebounds and 3.5 blocks to lead Castle to a 24-4 mark and within a late 3-pointer of its firstberth in a state title game.
It was enough to make Nunge one of four finalists for the prestigious Indiana Mr. Basketball award, which went to Kris Wilkes, a UCLA recruit.
“I don’t think people realized until really our tournament run this year just how good he is. I think there are a lot of schools that are kicking themselves at this point in time,” Gibson said. “I give kudos to coach McCaffery because he was there early in the process and telling Jack how good he was and how good he could be.”
Nunge is also a top-notch student who scored a perfect 36 on the math portion of his ACT test. He plans to become a doctor, like his father.
Gibson was just as impressed with Nunge’s humility. He related a story of when Mills and another Castle teammate were signing their letters of intent to play at Division III schools. Nunge sat in the back of the room to deflect attention from himself.
“They asked him to move up closer, and he was the biggest cheerleader in the room for these kids,” Gibson said. “He does not have any pretense about him, and I think that Iowa fans are going to love that about him.”
Nunge’s homecoming is scheduled for June 12. He’ll be easy to spot on campus, at 6-11 and 215 pounds. He is eager to get into the gym at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, where as a young boy he used to relish watching Jarryd Cole and Matt Gatens star in the familiar black-and-gold uniforms.
Nunge can picture himself in those colors, but he is keeping his expectations for his freshman year in check. The Hawkeyes return four starters from a 19-15 season.
“Whatever Coach wants me to do, that’s what I’m going to do. I believe in him and the program,” Nunge said.
McCaffery reciprocates that belief in Nunge. He has high hopes that his erstwhile neighbor will make himself at home on a close-knit Hawkeye basketball team.
“We’ll take advantage of everything he does,” McCaffery said of Nunge. “He’s got perimeter skill like a ‘3’ man. He’s big enough to play center. He can pick and pop and play the ‘4.’ He can post up. He’s got moves off either shoulder. He can finish with his left or his right hand.
“And he can run, he can play fast, which is really good.”