Key so far in Iowa basketball's wins? Getting the Hawkeye freshmen to play their part.
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Luka Garza has 36 points and 20 rebounds in the past two games for the Iowa men’s basketball team.
The Hawkeyes won both games.
But it came on the heels of a relatively quiet stretch for the freshman center — 18 points and 14 rebounds over the course of four games, all of them losses.
Jack Nunge had been playing as well as any Hawkeye in the three games leading into Saturday’s 90-64 victory against Drake. But the freshman forward was on the court for a season-low 10 minutes, with five points and his first career game with zero rebounds.
Such is life for rookies adjusting to the highest level of college basketball. Some games they shine, others you barely notice their presence.
It’s an area the Hawkeyes (6-6, 0-2 Big Ten Conference) would love to smooth out heading into their final three non-conference games to close out December. First up is Southern Utah (6-4) at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena (BTN).
“Jack wasn’t feeling very well,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery told reporters Monday in explaining Nunge’s lack of production against Drake. “He had a rough couple days. He wasn’t 100 percent. He fought through, got a big three-point play to start the game.”
McCaffery noted that other Hawkeyes — namely Garza, Cordell Pemsl and Ryan Kriener — came off the bench to provide quality minutes.
“There was no reason to push it with him,” he said of Nunge, who played just 5 minutes in each half.
Nunge has started the past four games for Iowa, scoring in double figures in the first three. The 6-foot-11 wing has scored 11 points or more five times this season. Saturday was his fourth game with five points or fewer.
Garza has had a similarly bumpy start to college. He has been an unstoppable force in some games, such as Saturday, when he punished a smaller Drake lineup for 13 points and seven rebounds in just 17 minutes of play. Garza has 26 offensive rebounds in his first dozen college games, showing a determination to throw his 6-11, 235-pound frame around.
Garza started Iowa’s first nine games, but has played a reserve role in the past three. That was because, in Iowa’s six losses, he totaled only 22 points. He has 90 points in the six Hawkeye victories.
Sense a pattern?
When Iowa’s freshmen are active and involved in the offense, the team fares much better. Getting peak performances from both at once would be a big lift.
And now you can throw Connor McCaffery into that mix. The backup point guard had an ankle injury early in the season and then came down with mononucleosis, delaying his debut until the Dec. 10 victory over Southern.
McCaffery still isn’t close to full strength but has already shown he can play a vital role in running the offense while starter Jordan Bohannon gets a rest.
“We push him in practice. But he’s kind of hit a wall,” said Fran McCaffery, Connor’s father. “He’s just way behind in the conditioning that’s necessary to compete at this level, and he knows that. He’s way behind his teammates. So we’ve really got to be careful with how we utilize him in the games.”
Connor McCaffery has played 26 minutes with only one turnover. Assuming he gets his legs back under him, he’ll become a third freshman the Hawkeyes can lean on. They’ll have three more games — also vs. Colorado in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on Friday, and at home vs. Northern Illinois on Dec. 29 — to tune up for the Big Ten grind of January and February.
Rookies are going to have their ups and downs. McCaffery is hoping his trio can maximize the former and minimize the latter.
The coach can take heart in what he’s seen from Tyler Cook in his sophomore season. The talented forward has been much better about not forcing things this year, McCaffery said, pointing to the second half against Drake as an example.
“I thought his pace and his decision-making was tremendous,” McCaffery said of a stretch of play in which Cook made 5-of-6 field goals and scored 12 points in just 10 minutes of action.
Iowa is coming off its best performance of the year. The rookies played their part.
“No matter what lineup we had out there, they really competed,” McCaffery said. “They followed the game plan and they played with an incredible amount of unselfishness.”