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Iowa basketball team starts season with heavy hearts after death of Jack Nunge's father

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — For the second time in his Iowa coaching career, Fran McCaffery is helping one of his basketball players — and the entire team — cope with the death of a father.

Jack Nunge’s dad, Mark, died Saturday morning in Newburgh, Indiana, at age 53.

McCaffery told reporters Monday that Nunge had spoken with his father Friday evening, and that it was an upbeat conversation about a basketball season set to begin Wednesday. Nunge, in his fourth season, is returning after knee surgery and is expected to be a vital part of a team ranked sixth in the nation. Nunge is the backup center and power forward.

Nunge got word early Saturday that his father had died, McCaffery said, and immediately got into a car with his girlfriend to make the trip home to Indiana. Visitation for Dr. Mark Nunge is scheduled for Tuesday evening in Newburgh. McCaffery said he told Nunge to take as much time away as he needs.

McCaffery gathered the Hawkeyes after breakfast Saturday to break the news about Mark Nunge.

“They were stunned. They were incredibly sad, and Saturday was a very somber day for us as a family,” said McCaffery, who spoke on the phone with Nunge as he was traveling home.

“As you can imagine, he was practically inconsolable on the telephone and was just anxious to get home,” McCaffery said.

Iowa forward Jack Nunge will be with his family in Indiana on Wednesday as they mourn the death of his father, Mark. Nunge got word of his father's passing Saturday morning, Hawkeyes coach Fran McCaffery said, and immediately headed home. The Hawkeyes will open the season without him, and McCaffery said Nunge will be given as much time away from basketball as he needs.

“It was obviously heartbreaking and devastating. It was horrible news,” said center Luka Garza, who came to Iowa in 2017 with Nunge and was his roommate. “We’re going to circle around him and just try to build him up, and hopefully when he comes back we can make him feel at home and make him feel a bit better.”

Mark Nunge is survived by his wife of 28 years, Beth, and five children: Rebecca, Jack, Jessica, Bob and Joey. In lieu of flowers, the Nunge family is asking for friends and loved ones to share condolences and memories of Mark online at AlexanderNewburghChapel.com.

It was almost six years to the day since McCaffery found out that Gabe Olaseni’s father, Benson, had died at his home in London. McCaffery recalled Monday that he brought Olaseni into his office, where he heard the news from his family via Skype.

“It was a phenomenally emotional moment for me and my staff. We just kind of put our arms around him as he was sobbing,” McCaffery said.

Olaseni, who was a senior that year, decided to stay and play in that night’s game against Northern Illinois. He had 10 points, five rebounds and four blocked shots in a 70-49 Hawkeye win. He left the game in tears as his coaches and teammates hugged him.

McCaffery said he spoke to Olaseni again about his experience Monday morning. He is hopeful that he can connect Olaseni and Nunge soon so that they can share ideas about how to cope after such a family tragedy.

“Dr. Nunge was a great guy. It’s just awful news, and we just have our thoughts and prayers with Jack and his entire family,” said Iowa guard CJ Fredrick, who became close with Nunge two years ago when they both redshirted for a season, working out together. “Jack’s an incredible teammate, an incredible friend of mine and I know he’s hurting. And we just kind of reached out to him. Whenever he’s ready to come back to us, no rush, he needs to be with his family.”

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

Iowa's first two opponents pass COVID tests, so games are on as scheduled

Iowa is scheduled to open the season with a 3 p.m. home game Wednesday against North Carolina Central and a 4 p.m. Friday matchup with Southern. McCaffery said both teams have conducted COVID-19 tests at their campuses and were cleared to travel to Iowa on Monday. They will be tested again here throughout the week. A positive test may mean a cancellation, McCaffery acknowledged, but he was hopeful both games would go on as scheduled.

Earlier Monday, teams such as Baylor, Duke and Tennessee announced that they would not participate in games scheduled for this week, because of positive tests for the coronavirus in their program or that of their opponent. It was a reminder of how tenuous this season is.

But McCaffery said he’s comfortable trying to start a basketball season now, even with the uncertainty. Or perhaps because of the uncertainty.

“I think without question we should start now. I think there’s got to be flexibility on the back end, so we don’t cancel. We postpone and reschedule. So I think you need more time to get games in,” McCaffery said.

“We’re in daily testing. That’s not a cure, but I think it does give us a sense of where our guys are right now in terms of health.”

Iowa guard Jordan Bohannon agreed that the daily testing is a big help when trying to get a season in with minimal disruption. But Bohannon, who suffered through a bout with COVID-19 this summer, wishes every league could have access to the same testing.

“I think it’s a little premature to start the season,” Bohannon said. “I think the Big Ten and the University of Iowa have done everything possible for us to run smoothly.

“I wish everyone had the same protocol. But that’s just not the kind of environment we’re living in right now.”

Bohannon will start at point guard, with Toussaint coming off the bench

Bohannon, a senior coming off hip surgery, will reclaim his starting point guard spot, McCaffery said. He will join Fredrick, Joe Wieskamp, Connor McCaffery and Garza as the Hawkeyes’ starting five.

That means sophomore Joe Toussaint, who started the final 20 games a year ago after Bohannon’s surgery, will come off the bench. McCaffery expects Toussaint to get extensive minutes. Other key reserves include forward Patrick McCaffery, Nunge when he returns and potentially true freshman Keegan Murray. McCaffery praised the 6-foot-8 Murray for his rebounding prowess and his versatility. He believes Murray will be able to provide needed depth in Iowa’s front court.

Bohannon will shift to shooting guard when Toussaint is in the game. Toussaint said he has no issue with coming off the bench.

More:New Hawkeye point guard Toussaint brings Big Apple mentality to Iowa City

“Whether I come off the bench or start, it’s not really a problem for me. I’m just here to produce and get wins,” Toussaint said.

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.