The freshman talks about a three-guard lineup and his expanding role. Mark Emmert/The Register
AMES, Ia. — There was one freshman in Iowa’s starting lineup Thursday and, for the first time, it wasn’t Luka Garza.
There was one sophomore wing player earning minutes for his inspired play and it wasn’t Isaiah Moss.
Iowa’s 84-78 loss to Iowa State obviously wasn’t the turning point in the season the team was hoping it would be. But the team’s fourth consecutive setback might be noteworthy for what is happening with coach Fran McCaffery’s playing rotation.
Freshman forward Jack Nunge and sophomore guard Maishe Dailey appear to be on the rise. Garza and Moss — fixtures in the starting lineup throughout the season — are seeing their roles diminish.
Nunge started for the third time and had his best game to date, with 16 points and season-highs in shots attempted (14), rebounds (8) and assists (4). The 6-foot-11 rookie showed remarkable poise in front of 14,384 screaming fans in an intense rivalry game, playing 14 second-half minutes that included 10 points, six rebounds and three assists.
He calmly rose for a 3-pointer from the right wing that put the Hawkeyes (4-6, 0-2 Big Ten Conference) ahead 55-52 with 14 minutes remaining. Iowa never led by that much again as the Cyclones responded with an 11-2 run.
“I think our effort (Thursday) was a lot better. Throughout the whole game, we were really pushing it and had them on their heels for most of it and I think that was big for us,” said Nunge, who did much of the pushing, with four offensive rebounds.
On the heels of a 12-point, six-rebound effort in Monday’s loss at Indiana, Nunge’s play has been the most encouraging sign for a Hawkeye team that is desperately searching for hope.
“I just think it’s effort every day in practice,” Nunge said when asked what he’s done to earn 84 minutes of playing time in Iowa’s past four games. “And execution — doing what coach needs and being that versatile guy.”
Nunge is also proving to be a bothersome defender, something the Hawkeyes sorely lack.
That is also why Dailey, at 6-7, is making himself so valuable one year after getting into only 12 games. He has played 39 minutes in the past two, with nine points and 11 big defensive rebounds. He may not become a prolific scorer, but Dailey’s wingspan and ability to move his feet on defense are needed attributes for the Hawkeyes.
Like Nunge, he’s also a savvy player.
“I love his game,” Iowa point guard Jordan Bohannon said of Dailey. “He’s a high basketball IQ player. He communicates on the defensive end and he’s really long and guards the ball really well.
“So he’s just the player we need and he’s stepping up at the right time.”
Dailey’s minutes are coming at the expense of Moss, who has hit a rough patch as the Hawkeyes’ heir apparent to graduated star shooting guard Peter Jok. When Iowa’s losing streak began, Moss was the team’s leading scorer at 15.8 points per game. He has just 21 — on 10-of-32 shooting — in the four games since.
On Thursday, Moss scored Iowa’s first four points and looked like his old aggressive self. He never scored again and played only 17 minutes in the Hawkeyes’ new three-guard offense.
“We’re going to need him to get going,” Bohannon said, offering encouragement to a talented player that the Hawkeyes could surely use as Big Ten action resumes next month. “I think he’s going to bounce back pretty well with us. We’re all going to support him.”
Iowa would also benefit if Garza, a 6-11 center, can regain his footing. He scored 40 points in the Hawkeyes’ first three games, all wins against lower-level competition. As the opposition became more challenging, Garza’s production declined.
On Thursday, he didn’t start for the first time, replaced by junior guard Brady Ellingson. Garza played a season-low 7 minutes, scoring two points and then nearly drawing a technical foul after showing extreme exuberance about his second-half basket.
Garza is a skilled player but struggles particularly with smaller, quicker teams like Iowa State. He and Moss are emblematic of the Hawkeyes as a whole — searching for confidence.
That’s something Dailey and Nunge seem to be gaining. The hope for Iowa is that they maintain that, and eventually Garza and Moss get back to playing up to their capabilities.
The next game provides a perfect opportunity — at home Sunday vs. a 2-6 Southern Jaguars squad.