No. 3 Iowa 99, Western Illinois 58: Here's what we learned

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Jack Nunge's delayed season debut for the Iowa men's basketball team was a rousing success.

The Hawkeye post player had missed the final 26 games of last season after tearing an ACL. He dutifully worked his way back into shape, but was absent from Iowa's first two games this season because he was back home in Indiana attending the funeral of his father.

It was a heart-wrenching development for the fourth-year player, who will be a key figure off the bench for Fran McCaffery's No. 3-ranked Hawkeyes. On Thursday, Nunge carried that grief onto the court at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, where he scored 18 points and was cheered wildly by his teammates on two second-half dunks. 

Iowa crushed Western Illinois 99-58 to go to 3-0 on the season. Senior center Luka Garza scored 30 of his 35 points in the first half.

But Nunge was the story, smiling as he walked to the locker room after the game and enjoying some good-natured banter with the teammates he had been away from for 10 days. He tied a career-high in scoring with his effort, which included eight consecutive made shots, two of them 3-pointers.

Here's what we learned:

Hawkeyes answer a run

Iowa center Luka Garza (55) reacts after getting fouled during a NCAA non-conference men's basketball game against Western Illinois, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

Iowa had a 22-point halftime lead and seemed ready to cruise to a third consecutive blowout win against a team that should get routed by a Big Ten Conference foe. But the Hawkeyes came out flat in the second half, and the Leathernecks staged a brief rally, hitting open 3-pointers and layups and stealing lazy Hawkeye passes. Iowa's lead shrunk to 61-46.

Fran McCaffery inserted Nunge, Joe Toussaint and Patrick McCaffery. And Iowa responded with a 17-2 run keyed by that trio to put the game out of reach after all. Perhaps it's natural for a third-ranked team to grow bored with games against inferior opponents.

The good news for Iowa is that the competition gets much more stirring starting next week. But it was also heartening for McCaffery to see his team break free from the doldrums and reassert itself.

Nunge brings height and depth

Iowa forward Jack Nunge (2) makes a basket as Western Illinois' Rod Johnson Jr. defends during a NCAA non-conference men's basketball game, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

Nunge was the first player off the Hawkeye bench, and he quickly showed why he could be an invaluable part of Fran McCaffery’s rotation. Nunge returned to Iowa City on Tuesday to rejoin his teammates. The 6-foot-11 forward/center initially played alongside Garza on Thursday as Iowa threw a big lineup at the Leathernecks. But Nunge also slid to the center spot twice in the first half to give Garza some needed rest without sacrificing a rim protector.

Nunge scored his first basket in a calendar year on a nifty jump hook, later got a corner 3-pointer to fall and converted a difficult reverse layup to have seven points by halftime. He also had three defensive rebounds in the half.

Nunge missed most of last year with a torn ACL, but was the starting power forward before that. He can fill an even more important role coming off the bench this year as the only other true big man in McCaffery’s rotation.

Who needs to shoot?

Not Connor McCaffery, who continues to fill up every stat line accept points for his father’s team. The junior is a power forward/point guard at 6-5. He excels at getting his teammates involved on the offensive end while helping to control the defensive glass.

McCaffery attempted just one shot in the first half, but played a team-high 17 minutes because he contributed four assists, four defensive rebounds and a steal. On a team with so much firepower, it’s essential to have at least one player willing to forego any offense of his own in order to keep everybody else happy. McCaffery is that player. He did score Iowa's first basket of the second half though, on a drive through traffic.

Iowa next hosts North Carolina at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.

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.