Jack Nunge steps into spotlight as No. 16 Iowa demolishes Michigan State on national TV

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Iowa had the most skilled big man in the basketball game Saturday, and it wasn’t even Luka Garza.

A national TV audience got its introduction to the full range of what Jack Nunge can do, and watched the Hawkeyes pummel Michigan State 88-58 at the Breslin Center. Nunge scored 18 points, with 11 rebounds and six assists, all of them setting or matching career-highs.

Joe Wieskamp added 21 points and another five 3-pointers. Connor McCaffery had 16 points and surprised the Spartans by making a career-high four 3-pointers.

A delighted Garza watched it all unfold, an all-American happy to step out of the spotlight for one game because of how well everyone around him was performing. Garza had "only" eight points, with eight rebounds, in 23 minutes. He hadn’t been held below 10 points in a game since Thanksgiving 2019. The fact that that became immaterial told the story of how one-sided this contest was.

“I think I played well (Saturday). I think my team did a great job of getting me the ball in spots to score. And I was finding them. They were knocking down the shots when I passed it to them,” Nunge said. “It was a big team win for us. Everybody across the board played well. I think that’s something we can use going forward.”

Ten Hawkeyes scored at least one point.

Michigan State's Gabe Brown, left, moves with the ball as Iowa's Jack Nunge closes in during the second half on Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021, at the Breslin Center in East Lansing.

Nunge, who is Garza’s backup, is only a sophomore in terms of his competitive career, but a senior academically. He sat out most of two seasons. His return this year gives the No. 16 Hawkeyes (15-6, 9-5 Big Ten Conference) an asset no team in their league can match: a 6-foot-11 athlete who, at his best, can do everything well. And Nunge seems to be just tapping into his potential as the season progresses.

“To watch him have the confidence and the mental toughness to do what he did (Saturday). What a performance,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said of Nunge. “He got buckets when we needed them. He finished through contact. He contested around the rim, didn’t give them second shots.”

Iowa raced to a 21-point first-half lead and never let the Spartans (10-8, 4-8) look like a functional basketball team. It was a second consecutive victory for the Hawkeyes and a series sweep of Michigan State for the first time in five seasons.

The Hawkeyes made 13 of 25 3-pointers, had 24 assists against only five turnovers, and outrebounded the Spartans 46-37. And they did that while saving some wear and tear on their all-American center. It was the perfect outcome for Iowa.

“What’s really impressive to me was how happy Luka was in the locker room, for his teammates, for our victory,” McCaffery said.

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Joe Wieskamp continues torrid shooting, including two big makes in a row

Wieskamp made five 3-pointers for a second game in a row as the junior wing player keeps ascending. His two biggest came early in the second half, when the Hawkeyes went into a brief lull and Michigan State cut the deficit to 46-31. That’s not “danger” territory, but it was a moment when Iowa needed to reassert itself.

Wieskamp had seen enough. He drained back-to-back 3s with a hand in his face to kick-start another Iowa surge that pushed the lead as high as 34 points.

“It just shows how complete of a team we have,” Wieskamp said. “We have a lot of guys that can get the job done.”

Wieskamp had never scored in double-digits against the Spartans before. His first career Big Ten game was a blowout loss here in which he was forced to play some time at power forward and left the building with a leg injury.

So this result, and this performance, felt good for the Muscatine native.

“They’ve done a really good job of scouting me, and obviously they’ve had a lot of athletic guards,” Wieskamp said. “I think I’ve just learned a lot throughout the years, ways in which I can attack them differently and just continue to play aggressively through that physicality.”

Hawkeyes turn to man-to-man defense, find an advantage over Spartans

Iowa held an opponent below 40% shooting for a third consecutive game. The Hawkeyes had the Spartans at a standstill at times, with Michigan State players appearing to force up shots because they had no idea what else to do with the basketball.

This is the least intimidating Michigan State team in recent memory. There’s little star power or muscle. But it was still up to Iowa to assert its superiority.

McCaffery said Iowa’s recent defensive success has come when he stopped relying so heavily on a 2-3 zone and challenged his players to compete in man-to-man situations. He said that has always been his preferred style of play He still mixes defenses, but believes he’s found a better ratio.

It also helped Iowa on the defensive glass. Michigan State got 20 offensive rebounds on Feb. 2 in its 82-74 loss in Iowa City. The Spartans had only 11 Saturday.

McCaffery said he told his players: “Be connected on ball screens. Be over toward the ball. Stay in your stance. Be able to do a one-way closeout. And couple that with scouting report information.”

On Saturday, it played out this way: “I thought to a man, defensively, we really, really competed. We didn’t give them as many opportunities in transition,” McCaffery said.

The Spartans scored 13 second-chance points and only 12 on the fast break.

Wieskamp also pointed to Iowa’s recent defensive intensity as the reason it has won two of the past three games, with the loss by two points at Indiana.

 “We’ve really picked up the pressure in that regards. I think the way that we’re defending right now is at a really good level,” he said. “We’re not the most athletic group, but we’re trying to do our best and defend athletic guards.”

Iowa next plays at Wisconsin at 6 p.m. Thursday.

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.