Iowa's Nunge packs on weight while sitting out, eager for bigger impact in final 3 seasons

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

PISCATAWAY, N.J. — A sheepish smile spread across Jack Nunge’s face as he contemplated the question: Have you put on some weight while redshirting for the Iowa basketball team?

“Yeah, a little bit,” the 6-foot-11 sophomore said before Saturday’s Hawkeyes victory at Rutgers, seeming to hesitate to offer how much.

“I’m about 250 pounds right now.”

If this is what redshirt seasons are for, then give Nunge an “A” for appetite. The forward arrived last season at 225 pounds and was more of a perimeter player while averaging 5.7 points and 2.8 rebounds. He made 19 3-pointers, showing a smooth stroke, and scored 18 points at Ohio State and 16 at Indiana.

But guarding Big Ten Conference power forwards near the basket was a bigger chore, and one Nunge knew he needed to grow into. He was at 235 pounds when the No. 19 Hawkeyes began practices this fall, intending to build on a promising rookie campaign.

Just before the season began in November, Nunge made a surprise decision: He would sit out of competition, leaving himself three more winters to play, and hopefully at a higher level.

Certainly a heavier one.

“I realized it was probably the best option for me, just another year to learn, another year to get stronger,” Nunge said in his first interview since his redshirt announcement.

“I just knew I had to have a different mentality and take a new view on the game.”

Iowa sophomore forward Jack Nunge, wearing a black shirt and gold tie, celebrates with teammates during the Hawkeyes' upset of Michigan on Feb. 1. Nunge is redshirting this season, but still engaged with the team and eagerly anticipating what extra size will mean for him in his final three years.

Nunge still practices with the Hawkeyes, still travels to road games, still sits on the bench in a suit and tie alongside Cordell Pemsl and CJ Fredrick, who are also taking a year away from competition.

Nunge missed a few weeks with a stress fracture in his foot, but is back to full strength now and providing a valuable service Iowa didn’t have a year ago: a legitimate big man on the practice squad to help starting post players Tyler Cook and Luka Garza prepare for the Big Ten grind.

Nunge is finally at a comparable weight with those two. He can feel his extra size and strength paying off, particularly on defense.

“Every game in the Big Ten’s a battle, and you’ve got to be able to hold up with all the contact,” said Nunge, who still projects as a “stretch 4” on offense.

“You can learn from Luka, Tyler, Ryan (Kriener), see how they prepare and see their mentalities going into the games. You’ve just got to be focused. You’ve got to stay with the scouting report, follow what Coach (Fran McCaffery) says. It is fun supporting all my teammates and seeing their success. You get to see all the work they put in in the offseason pay off.”

Iowa is 20-5 without Nunge, who certainly would have had some role on this year’s team if he’d chosen to play. Especially after Pemsl, another power forward, opted for knee surgery.

Nunge said he’s never second-guessed his decision. He’s looking forward to three more years in a Hawkeye uniform.

“At first, it’s hard. But the coaches are still working out with me enough and I’m getting in the gym as much as possible. It’s not like a lost year, because I still have that year of eligibility. There’s games to play,” Nunge said. “The coaches told me: ‘If you’re going to do it one way or the other, just give it your all.’

“I think there’s going to be a difference between playing the game when you’re 19 and 23.”

That’s how old Nunge will be by the time the 2021-22 basketball season concludes. That’s when Iowa fans will be able to measure how much this year off ended up meaning to Nunge and the program.