The Iowa coach praises his team and the big shots made by Jordan Bohannon. Mark Emmert / The Register
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Fran McCaffery earned his 400th win as a college basketball coach Tuesday, and immediately dismissed that notion.
“I don't have any wins,” Iowa’s eighth-year coach said after his team dispatched Minnesota 94-80 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. “Iowa has a bunch of wins. Siena has a bunch of wins. Our team won a lot of games. I think the important thing is our players received credit for that.”
McCaffery ran his record to 149-113 with the Hawkeyes. His previous 14 seasons as a head coach included 112 victories at Siena, 90 at North Carolina-Greensboro and 49 at Lehigh.
He was asked about the milestone number after Iowa ran its record to 12-12 this winter, and was ready with a lengthy response.
“I've been pretty fortunate to work for some very special people. I've had some really good players,” McCaffery said. “You don't get 400 wins being a great coach. You get 400 wins when you have great players who are committed to one another, committed to being great, put the time in in the off-season and have the kind of character that you want.
“I've loved going to work every day because I've had great people. I've never had issues and knuckleheads that just make it difficult.”
Freshman picks himself back up
It’s been a trying debut season for Hawkeye forward Jack Nunge. He went from starter to afterthought after some sluggish performances, scoring a mere 14 points in eight January games.
Nunge turned in his most impactful outing in a month with a pair of 3-pointers, three offensive rebounds and two blocked shots, one of which went whistling into the seats behind the Minnesota basket in the second half.
McCaffery has said he felt Nunge lost some confidence after starting his college career with six double-digit scoring efforts in his first 11 games. Nunge started nine times, but was sent to the bench after providing only two points in a loss to Michigan on Jan. 2. He was scoreless in three of his next five games.
Nunge denied that.
“I’m pretty confident most of the time. It’s just we have a lot of skilled players, so some guys will come in and hit a shot and then they’ll get more minutes,” he said.
He did acknowledge that losing his starting role was difficult.
“You’ve got to live with it and come into practice every day and keep fighting for those minutes,” Nunge said.
“I was optimistic about it. I cheered on my teammates and pushed them in practice.”
He pushed the Gophers on Tuesday, starting with a 3-point swish with 49 seconds left in the first half that gave Iowa a 37-33 lead heading to the locker room.
“That was huge. They were making a run,” Nunge said. “I think that was a good spark for our team.”
And for Nunge, who played 14 minutes without a turnover and found himself in the core group of eight players that McCaffery used in the second half.
The rangy 6-foot-11 wing player is too talented to not be a contributor on a Hawkeye team fighting its way up from the bottom of the Big Ten Conference standings. Iowa is now 3-8 in league play, tied with Minnesota for 11th place.
The Iowa forward talks about his coach’s advice and a big pass he got from Jordan Bohannon. Mark Emmert / The Register
A familiar-looking Pemsl
Meanwhile, forward Cordell Pemsl is starting to resemble the player he was as a freshman, when he averaged 8.9 points per game on 61.7 percent shooting as a vital Hawkeye reserve.
Pemsl had looked uncharacteristically timid for stretches of the season, but has scored 31 points in the past three games, making 11-of-12 shots.
“I was getting too frustrated with myself and we were losing games, so I’m thinking ‘what more can I do?’” Pemsl admitted after scoring 10 points with six rebounds Tuesday.
“I’ve just not tried to force myself into things. If I’ve got a shot, take a shot. Otherwise, let’s move it and try to get someone else a better look. I think I’m just getting back to myself, where I was last year.”
Pemsl, at 6-8, 240 pounds, gives Iowa a valuable third low-post option off the bench, behind starters Luka Garza and Tyler Cook. On Tuesday, there was even a stretch where he played alongside those two as the Hawkeyes went with a big lineup Minnesota couldn’t match.
Pemsl also was needed when Cook and Garza each ran into some foul trouble in the second half.
McCaffery had some instructions for the sophomore before sending him into the game on that occasion.
“He said, ‘Go get 'em,’” Pemsl recalled. “I’m kind of getting back in a rhythm and taking shots and making shots that I know I’m capable of making. Just getting the ball moving, getting guys open. That’s what he asked me to do and I went out and did it.”
Moss responds in second half
Iowa shooting guard Isaiah Moss had a tempestuous game. The sophomore, coming off a two-point outing in Saturday’s loss at Nebraska, hit an early 3-pointer and it appeared as if he was going to be a big factor.
Then he picked up two fouls, the second one a blatant shove of Minnesota’s Dupree McBrayer. Moss marched straight to the bench after that, knowing he would be sitting for a while.
McCaffery went to talk to his player, to make sure he wasn’t going to sulk after a frustrating sequence.
“I said, ‘What are you doing?’” McCaffery related. “He didn't really have much of an answer. I said, ‘All right, well, it's behind you. Let's get ready for the second half.’”
Moss had an answer then. He scored 13 points after intermission, including another three 3-pointers. It was the fourth time this season he’s made four in a game, and that’s needed to help ease the pressure on point guard Jordan Bohannon.
Moss played 17 minutes in the second half, a strong sign that he has McCaffery’s trust.
The Iowa sophomore also talks about his exciting matchup with Minnesota’s Jordan Murphy. Mark Emmert / The Register
Power in the paint
The matchup of the evening was between Tyler Cook and his Minnesota counterpart at power forward Jordan Murphy. They took turns muscling into the lane for short bank shots, scrapping for rebounds, and trying not to draw fouls that would send them to the bench.
Both players recorded double-doubles. It’s nothing new for Murphy, a 6-6 player who behaves like he’s five inches taller. He had 21 points and 17 rebounds, seven of them offensive, to help the Gophers stay in a game that could have been an Iowa rout. It was his 20th double-double of the season, the most in the country.
Cook countered with 17 points and 10 rebounds, limited to 29 minutes because of four fouls committed while matching Murphy inside.
Cook, at 6-9, enjoyed the assignment.
“That’s one of the guys that I respect most in the league. Two competitors going at it,” Cook said. “It’s just fun to go up against a guy like that. That’s what we’re here for.”
The two will match wits — and welts — again on Feb. 21 in Minneapolis. Basketball fans will want to tune in for that reason alone.