Jack Nunge returns from surgery eager to help Hawkeyes' quest for basketball title

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — It’s not that Jack Nunge has grown tired of forming close bonds with a different Iowa basketball teammate each year.

It’s just that what he really wants to do is get out on the court and help the Hawkeyes spread out.

Two years ago, Nunge decided to sit out for a season to develop his skills and strength. He spent much of that winter lifting weights and observing games alongside rookie guard CJ Fredrick, and the two became tight.

Last year, the bulked-up Nunge was eager to show off the new dimensions of his game as Iowa’s starting power forward. By Nov. 25, he was back in street clothes, his plans undone by a torn ACL suffered just as he was starting to show how valuable he could be to the Hawkeyes.

Point guard Jordan Bohannon also was rehabbing from hip surgery. So Nunge had another workout partner and another restless winter picturing himself adding range to his jumpshot instead of restoring range of motion to his surgically repaired knee.

More:Jack Nunge, CJ Fredrick added muscle together — now they could start together for Iowa

“We were always in the training room every day lifting together, so we really got a good bond that you don’t really see every day. It was great in that aspect,” Nunge said Friday, recalling his time spent with Bohannon while their Iowa finished out a 20-11 season.

“We were both going through a really tough time, and that made our connection stronger. We kind of used that as our motivation whenever we were doing rehab. We sat next to each other and talked pretty much every game about how much we couldn’t wait to get back out there and help our guys.”

Bohannon, a fifth-year senior, was cleared to return to the practice court first. Nunge, 9½ months after surgery, believes he’ll finally get to start doing live scrimmages with his teammates next week. He's eager to start carving out a role on a Hawkeye squad with good reason to believe a national title is within reach.

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Nunge, who has added more muscle in his fourth season than he once thought possible, figures to be in the middle of whatever success Iowa achieves. The Hawkeyes lost two experienced post players when Ryan Kriener graduated and Cordell Pemsl transferred to Virginia Tech. Starting center Luka Garza returns, but the all-American is in need of a sidekick.

Enter Nunge.

This was the common scene for Jack Nunge (right) and Jordan Bohannon last winter, two Iowa basketball teammates watching games in suits while recovering from surgeries. They'll be back in uniform this winter, and Nunge is eager to help his friend Luka Garza handle frontcourt duties on a team that believes it can win a national title.

“Going into last year, I was really prepared to have a breakout year. And it was just really unfortunate what happened. I was really kind of catching a groove,” said Nunge, who scored 25 points in the two games just before his injury.

“I’ve just got to be prepared to do it all over again this year.”

Nunge pushes himself through surgery recovery alone

Rehabbing from surgery can be a lonely process. Nunge was happy to have Bohannon around to help make it more bearable.

Bohannon felt the same way.

"The bond we formed this past year and a half is something that will last a lifetime," Bohannon said. "We were able to share our personal emotions and struggles of the everyday process with each other and it made us much closer."

But then the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, forcing the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament and sending the Hawkeyes into an uncertain offseason. The players retreated to their homes.

Nunge spent the spring and summer pushing himself through the recovery process. Eventually, he was able to do plyometric exercises, and then some running outside.

It was his first surgery, and his first taste of the mental and physical challenges an operation brings to an athlete.

“The most difficult part has just been the length of time it took,” Nunge said.

“I was just thinking about that. I don’t know how I survived when it was at four months and I was still 5½ months away from being able to get back on the court.”

But he did make it. Nunge has been going through drills with the Hawkeyes. He’s been taking his classes online and will complete his degree in accounting in the spring. The two years away from basketball make for another two he can play after this. He’ll use that time to get his master's in business administration, although he intends to play basketball professionally before settling into the corporate world.

“I haven’t really had these last couple years to kind of build my brand,” Nunge said. “But hopefully going into this year I’ll be able to increase my stock and show what I can do.”

The last time Jack Nunge wore an Iowa basketball uniform, he dunked on a helpless Cal Poly team before later suffering a season-ending knee injury. Nunge has spent 9 1/2 months recovering from that, and is hoping to once again be the Hawkeyes' starting power forward when this season begins.

Nunge and Garza arrived at Iowa together, now want to thrive together

Garza and Nunge arrived at Iowa together in the summer of 2017. They both were listed at 6-11 (although Nunge was a shade taller than Garza) and assigned to be roommates. They even found themselves in the starting lineup together at times, with Garza at center and Nunge playing small forward.

But their careers couldn’t have diverged more starkly. While Nunge spent the bulk of the next two years on the sidelines, Garza emerged as one of college basketball’s biggest stars. Garza was the first Hawkeye to be named Big Ten Conference player of the year after averaging 23.9 points and 9.8 rebounds last winter.

Nunge has been aching to rejoin his friend. He added 25 pounds during his first year off and earned the starting power forward spot last October. He had played at 225 pounds while averaging 5.7 points and 2.8 rebounds as a freshman.

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

He said he’s even stronger now at 245 pounds, speaking about the personal records he’s been setting in the weight room in recent weeks. He didn’t want to disclose how much he’s able to lift, though.

“It’s still going up,” Nunge said. “We still have a couple weeks before the season, so I can increase it more.”

Check back with him later on that.

In the meantime, Nunge will be getting ready to be something he never would have guessed: a true big man in the Big Ten. He knows he will have to prove capable of muscling up at the power forward spot and also be able to give Garza some rest at times by sliding down to play center.

“You saw it a little last year, what it can be like for us to play together. It took a little bit to figure out how other teams were going to guard us two bigs,” Nunge said.

“Both of us stretch the floor. Both of us can take mismatches inside. Both have really good touch around the rim. I think that’s something that a lot of teams can’t really defend. It will be exciting this year, because we’ll have more games to tinker with it and see how we complement each other on the court.”

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.

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