IOWA CITY, Iowa — Iowa nearly made the NCAA Tournament last season despite playing without a traditional center.
The Hawkeyes figure to have a pair of freshman big men capable of providing a presence in the post.
Luka Garza and Jack Nunge, both 6-foot-11, will likely see plenty of playing time this winter as the Hawkeyes look to rebuild following the loss of Peter Jok, the Big Ten’s leading scorer in 2016-17.
Iowa, which earned a top seed in the NIT last season before losing to eventual champion TCU, opens its season on Nov. 10 against Chicago State.
“Both of them are tremendous players. They’re incredibly versatile. They come ready. It’s not like we have to develop them,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said Monday during the team’s annual media day. “They have versatile skill sets. They can dribble, pass and shoot. When you have two 6-11 guys that can do all those things, then you have high expectations for them, and they’re going to be right in the middle of it.”
In Garza, Iowa might have found itself a future star.
— Iowa Basketball (@IowaHoops) August 12, 2017
Garza scored nearly 2,000 career points for the Maret School in Washington, averaging 24.6 points, 11.7 rebounds and 2.5 blocks as a senior. Garza, a consensus four-star recruit, then averaged team highs of 22.5 points and 10.3 rebounds during Iowa’s four-game trip through Europe in August.
The Hawkeyes didn’t exactly face stiff competition overseas. But Garza has impressed his coaches and his teammates enough that he might be in line to start from day one.
“He’s relentless,” forward Ahmad Wagner said. “When you watch him every day in practice, he’s doing the same thing. He’s scoring, he’s rebounding, (providing) effort every day. It’s something you see consistently.”
Nunge was one of four finalists for Indiana’s Mr. Basketball in 2017 after putting up 19 double-doubles and leading his high school team to an undefeated regular season.
Nunge averaged 6.8 points and 5.3 rebounds in Europe. But his status is likely a bit more unsettled, since Iowa also brings back Wagner, senior Dominique Uhl and sophomores Ryan Kriener and Cordell Pemsl — in addition to starter Tyler Cook, a first-team All-Freshman pick by the Big Ten in 2016-17, and reigning league sixth man of the year Nicholas Baer.
“I think you’ll see a different shot-blocking presence in Tyler Cook this year. Kriener was a shot blocker, Baer was a shot blocker even though he’s only 6-7, and now you have two 6-11 guys that will come in there and protect the rim. That gives us some flexibility with our pressing,” McCaffery said. “It also provides, if we play zone, the kind of size that you need to limit them to one shot and then trigger our break.”
Iowa will undoubtedly miss Jok, who averaged 19.9 points a game as a senior.
But adding Garza and Nunge to a developing core of young talent should allow the Hawkeyes to focus more on their inside game to compensate.
“I’m just going to go in and play as hard as I can, and I know Jack is going to do the same. Whatever happens will happen, but both of us over the course of our careers have worked so hard for this moment,” Garza said. “Both of us will take full advantage of it … and we’ve both have gotten a lot better since we got here in June.”